Oral Answers to Questions

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 25th May 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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4. What recent assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the duty and customs regime following the UK’s exit from the EU on the fresh food and drinks sector.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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7. What recent assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the duty and customs regime following the UK’s exit from the EU on the fresh food and drinks sector.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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The Government recognise the importance of trade in the food and drink sector. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regularly reviews UK import and export trade statistics, including from the European Union. In April, the Government presented their draft border target operating model for all goods imports into Great Britain. To ensure enough time for proper preparedness, we will implement the model across three milestones between the end of October and 31 October 2024. In the longer term, the UK single trade window will enable all information required to import and export goods to be submitted to border agencies through one interface, further simplifying the process for traders.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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It is the European Union that has put certain checks in place in its export arrangements. We have had a pretty open door since we left the European Union, which is why we are implementing the target operating model to ensure that we introduce further controls, mindful of the biosecurity risks that we face.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Mike Park, the chief executive officer of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, told The New York Times that his industry members were the “poster boys” of Brexit, but now admit that Brexit has delivered nothing, saying:

“It has left some very negative legacies and hasn’t provided any of the positives we were promised.”

Given the latest polling shows that only 9% think that the decision to leave the EU was more of a success than a failure and 62% describe it as more of a flop, and given the damage to Scotland’s global fresh food and drinks sector, can the Secretary of State finally agree that the only Brexit growth our economy is experiencing is in managed decline?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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What can I say? Rubbish. The quota for British fishermen, including Scottish fishermen, has gone up since we left the European Union. We have signed new trade deals, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership being the latest. We have announced an extra five agricultural attachés around the world, making 16 in total, who will promote great British food, including fish, around the world.

Oral Answers to Questions

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 17th November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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7. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential impact of (a) the Elections Act 2022 and (b) provisions in the Online Safety Bill on the transparency of political campaigning communications.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
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The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act 2022 will increase transparency by helping voters to understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement was extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency while increasing the complexity of the law. As currently drafted, the Online Safety Bill would introduce new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but it does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Today, openDemocracy and Who Funds You? released an audit showing that the least transparently funded think-tanks raised more than £14 million in the past two years from mystery donors. Those think-tanks appear across the media, such as on the BBC. They have secured hundreds of meetings with Ministers since 2012, and advised the likes of the former Prime Minister on policy choices that were subsequently proven disastrous. What steps is the committee taking to ensure that the funding of such think-tanks is transparent and accountable, and that foreign funding bodies are not able to commandeer our politics?

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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The commission regulates the spending of organisations campaigning for or against a political party or candidate during the regulated period ahead of an election, or for a particular outcome ahead of a referendum. It also regulates donations to political parties and candidates. Unless an organisation is engaged in regulated campaigning activity, it will fall outside the commission’s area of responsibility. The commission does not have a role in regulating the spending of political activity more generally.

As for foreign money, the commission is committed to ensuring that political funding is transparent and to preventing unlawful foreign money from entering UK politics. It continues to recommend changes to the law to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. That includes duties on parties for enhanced due diligence and risk assessments of donations and a requirement for companies to have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.

Support for Local Food Infrastructure

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 8th September 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I commend the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate. His passion for the subject has always been clear in the time I have known him in Parliament. He started with some quite startling facts about the nine largest retailers controlling over 90% of the market in food, and the huge percentage of fish caught here that is processed off-shore and the impact that has. He also expressed some concerns about local food partnerships. We heard from other Members about the planning changes that are needed, and how £10 spent on a local box scheme means much greater spend in the local area. That point was well made. The need for a wider conversation about our food system was another important point.

I thank Sustain for its very useful briefing ahead of this debate. Much of it reflects what is going on in Scotland, where food policy is devolved. As I often do, I will share with Members some of what is already under way in Scotland. One of Sustain’s recommendations is for all local authorities that do not have a food partnership to aim to start one, in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Places Network, by 2025. Scottish councils are well represented in that network; half of all our local authorities now have a food partnership and are members of Sustainable Food Places—with more to follow in the next few years.

Last year, the SNP Scottish Government ran a consultation on a local food strategy. It had three main themes: connecting people with food, connecting local producers with buyers, and harnessing the buying power of public sector procurement. Nearly 300 people participated in 18 workshops designed and co-ordinated by Nourish Scotland in partnership with Scotland’s Sustainable Food Places Network and the Scottish Government. There was broad support from everyone for local food, but a number of barriers were identified, some of which we have heard about today. They include a need for suitable infrastructure and short supply chains, for local food to be affordable and accessible for all, and for more land to be made available and accessible for those who wish to enter the market. There was also acknowledgment of the value of dynamic purchasing systems and the need to extend public sector procurement for local food to all publicly owned settings, which I note is one of Sustain’s key recommendations. Work is now under way to address the key challenges identified, building on the ideas and suggestions made at that time, as well as relevant Scottish Government strategies and policies.

Underpinning that action is the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that Act, which begins to lay the foundation for a transformation of Scotland’s food system. It requires the Scottish Government and a range of public bodies to produce good food nation plans that are geared towards ensuring that high-quality, locally sourced food is affordable, accessible and a practical, everyday reality for everyone. An independent food commission will also be established which will scrutinise and make recommendations on those plans and give progress reports.

Alongside that, the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture, published in March, aims to transform how we support farming and food production to deliver nutritious food that is local and sustainably produced. Work is under way now with farmers, crofters and land managers to ensure that they have the right support to continue delivering high farming standards and to create more localised supply chains, enhance producer value and cut food miles. That ties in with the consultation on the forthcoming agriculture Bill at Holyrood, which covers a range of areas including promoting quality and sustainable food production, and ensuring a fair income for farmers and crofters, which is crucial.

Another tangible way in which the SNP Government are investing in and boosting the profile of local and regional produce is through the regional food fund, which awards projects grants of up to £5,000. Since its launch four years ago, the fund has supported an incredibly eclectic range of collaborative initiatives from all over Scotland. This year, 24 projects have been granted awards, from food and drink festivals and events to food tourism collaborations, and from online and physical markets to e-commerce. Regional food groups will deliver projects such as a “buy local” campaign from Eat and Drink Dundee, and a food heritage project by Lanarkshire Larder.

A number of hon. Members have made the point that harnessing local food is all the more crucial in the context of the cost of living crisis and the need to bolster our food security. This summer, the annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 1982, and perhaps even before. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were 12.6% higher in the year to July 2022. The research firm Kantar forecasts that the average annual grocery bill will rise by £380—a shocking figure. We know that low-income households are hit the hardest by price increases, as they spend a higher proportion than average of their income on energy and food.

Supply chain challenges, rising energy, fertiliser and transport costs, as well as labour shortages, have contributed to escalating prices. Although those problems have been exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, our food security was already under threat. Recent years have seen an unfair burden placed on community organisations such as food banks, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted very effectively. The folks running those services do an utterly incredible job. I have to commend those operating food banks in my own constituency—they are providing lifeline support—but food banks are a symptom of a dysfunctional food and social security system.

The Scottish Government intend to incorporate the right to adequate food in Scots law. A draft national plan has been published to end the need for food banks as a primary response to food insecurity. Achieving that means focusing on tackling the causes of poverty holistically, through fair work, social security and helping to manage the cost of living. For instance, the SNP Government have used their limited powers to increase Scottish social security payments by 6%, and have just announced that they are increasing the Scottish child payment to £25 per child for those who are eligible. We urgently need a similar raise in reserved benefits. Another reserved area that we are greatly concerned about is the UK’s pursuit of post-Brexit free trade deals, which is a subject that was well aired in the debate on the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill earlier this week.

I hope the Minister has heard the very sensible suggestions that Members have made, as well as their commitment and passion for local food production and the benefits it can bring. I hope he will take that forward in his new post.

Protecting and Restoring Nature: COP15 and Beyond

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 14th July 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it. She began with a typically well-informed and passionate speech, and one thing among many that struck me is that our only world is on fire and being bulldozed, which set the scene for a debate that can only lead those viewing it to agree entirely.

The hon. Lady spoke of the recent negotiations in Nairobi, and how the proposals are littered with brackets, as they remain to be ratified. We all devoutly hope those brackets will be removed, because Governments must provide robust commitments, with action targets, at COP15. Governments cannot be allowed off the hook and to fudge the commitments with warm words; they must have the targets, monitoring, enforcement and funding required to achieve them.

I also commend the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for highlighting how alarmingly quickly this is happening. The speed of biodiversity loss, even among wildlife in the UK, is terrifying. We are clearly guilty of taking biodiversity for granted.

So the COP15 biodiversity conference in December comes at an extremely critical moment. As we have heard, biodiversity is declining more rapidly than at any point in human history. The Aichi biodiversity targets set in 2010 have largely been missed, and nature continues to decline, with more than one in five species globally at risk of extinction. In the UK alone, more than 1,000 of the more than 8,000 species assessed in the 2019 state of nature report are threatened with extinction. As we have heard, once common species such as the swift, the house martin and the greenfinch have been moved on to the red list in the latest “Birds of Conservation Concern” list for the UK, meaning that they are in critical decline and in need of urgent action.

Scientists are warning that the Amazon rainforest is at a dangerous tipping point that could trigger a mass and irreversible loss of trees. Warming seas and ocean acidification are wreaking havoc on coral reefs. As any of us who heard Sir Patrick Vallance and his colleagues’ evidence the other day will know, biodiversity loss and the biodiversity emergency are intrinsically linked with the climate crisis. It is therefore imperative that all countries at COP15 recognise the scale of the biodiversity crisis that faces us all and that international leaders use the conference to urgently set the most ambitious targets possible for biodiversity and nature protection.

The IPBES—Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—assessment report on the diverse values and valuation of nature, released this week, bears stark witness to the catastrophic extent to which humans are overexploiting wild species and habitats, and concludes that a key driver of biodiversity loss is the failure of national Governments to include nature and wildlife as a consideration in their decision making. It also found that where nature has been considered, it has been primarily for its economically productive aspects, such as food production. That is why it is such a disappointment to see the UK Government’s recent abandonment of wildlife protection conditions for farm subsidies in England in favour of sheer food production capacity. We all recognise, of course, the food security issues we face globally, but in addressing those we cannot ignore the pressing need for action on these matters.

Whoever the UK Prime Minister is in December, they must attend the conference and fully commit the UK Government to addressing this biodiversity emergency. The fight against climate change and the biodiversity crisis cannot be abandoned to placate uninformed naysayers, and we fully support the call by a range of non-governmental organisations for the new Prime Minister to convene a meeting of leaders in advance to help foster international consensus. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to that suggestion.

If the UK Government need an example of how to demonstrate global leadership on this issue, they do not need to look far. The Scottish Government were among the first globally to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Scotland was also the first country in the world to complete and submit a full report on all 20 Aichi targets, doing so in 2016. Scotland’s national economy and its marine economy will be vital to securing a net zero future, with nature-based solutions accounting for about 30% of the emissions reductions needed. But in turn, we must ensure it is protected and enhanced.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I had not noticed the right hon. Gentleman coming in, but of course I will give way to him.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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I have been here for quite a while now—I am just a quiet presence, so I would not be noticed.

With all that the hon. Lady has set out being the case, does she agree that it remains incomprehensible that the Scottish and UK Governments both continue to allow industrial-scale fishing with gillnets, which not only leaves a massive amount of plastic pollution but is an utterly unsustainable way of catching fish?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Absolutely, these are things that the Scottish Government are of course looking at—I am not sure about the UK Government’s position. He will know that Marine Scotland and its partners have developed a Scottish marine protected area monitoring strategy, which will look at issues such as he has raised. It also intends to add to the existing marine protected areas network, which will cover at least 10% of Scotland’s seas, and is introducing a strengthened framework to help address situations such as the one he describes. I am well aware of the issues associated with gillnet fishing and the accumulated debris that it results in. We should certainly continue to press all Governments on that matter, at all times. I am very much aware of that.

I know that Members here quite often roll their eyes about these sorts of things, but I have to say that Scotland is pressing ahead on this matter. It is taking action, and it would be useful if we all shared best practice rather than rolling our eyes and thinking, “Here’s Scotland talking about itself again.” We can all learn from each other at all times.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
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I certainly would not roll my eyes, and I pay tribute to the Scottish Government for setting up the natural capital convention. It must be almost 10 years ago now that the first natural capital convention in the world took place, so Scotland has shown leadership on these matters. The point is that we must all try to learn from each other and make sure that we get the best out of it.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Further to that, a global partnership led by the Scottish Government produced a statement of intent known as the Edinburgh declaration, calling for transformative action to be taken at all levels to halt biodiversity loss. With signatories from every continent, the declaration called for greater prominence to be given to the role that regional Governments, cities and local authorities play in delivering a new global framework of targets. The Scottish Government are backing this up by enshrining nature protection in law and prioritising biodiversity across a range of policy areas.

The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who is no longer in her place, and other Members who have spoken in this debate, will be pleased to hear that, since 2012, the Scottish Government have funded the restoration of more than 25,000 hectares of degraded Scottish peatland, with further plans for the next 10 years, backed by £250 million of funding. Peat stores more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and is a vital nature-based solution to protecting biodiversity.

In Scotland, we are also revitalising our woodlands and forests. In 2019 alone, 22 million trees were planted in Scotland, comprising nearly 84% of the UK’s mainland tree planting. The Government are supporting the restoration and expansion of Scotland’s rainforest and establishing a national register of ancient woodlands.

The preservation of marine habitats, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned, is equally crucial. That is why the Scottish Government plan to designate a suite of highly protected marine areas covering at least 10% of Scotland’s seas. That will provide additional environmental preservation over and above the existing MPA network by establishing sites that will be protected against extractive, destructive or depositional activities.

We have talked about biodiversity spreading across a range of sectors, but it is also one of the main principles of the new Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, under which Ministers, relevant authorities and organisations must have regard to halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity when preparing national food plans, as planned under the Bill. One of the everyday ways that we can halt biodiversity loss is by reducing food waste. Currently, about 30% of all food produced globally goes uneaten.

Last month, Scotland also became the first part of the UK to implement a ban on many of the most problematic single-use plastics. Plastics and waste, as we know, can wreak havoc on our natural environments, as Everyday Plastic and Greenpeace highlighted just yesterday as they launched the results of their big plastics count.

By the end of 2022, the Scottish Government will publish a new biodiversity strategy for the next 25 years, which will propose to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and reverse it by 2045. That will help guide the way that Scots use and manage land and Scotland’s approach to protecting habitats and ecosystems, which will mean a substantial restoration and regeneration of biodiversity across our land, freshwater and sea. Vitally, a series of outcomes will be developed across rural, marine, freshwater, coastal and urban environments. The plans to introduce a natural environment Bill will put in place a robust statutory enforcing, target setting, monitoring and reporting framework. Those targets will be based on an overarching goal of preventing any further extinctions of wildlife, halting declines by 2030 and making real progress in restoring Scotland’s natural environment by 2045. The Scottish Government will also ensure that a review of environmental justice and the case for an environmental court takes place during this parliamentary Session.

At COP15, we need to see similar transformational action targets from all the world’s Governments. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) notes, it is important that we address the task with optimism. That is where we need the UK Government to step up, raise the political profile of biodiversity to the highest level, show global leadership and press hard for international commitments to halt and start to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Ministers should listen to their chief scientific adviser on this. At COP15 we must see a commitment to sustainable solutions that offer real results.

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Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
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I was going to come to that later, but I will respond to it now. I am sure the hon. Member would not expect me to be able to speak for whoever may win the election to be leader of our party and the next Prime Minister. However, I can assure her that I know that our party is committed to this issue, and that is not going to change suddenly. The Conservative party is very aware of its importance, and I am sure that, whoever takes over as Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time, we will continue to champion nature recovery globally and that there will be a senior level presence at COP15. I would not dare to say whether that will be the future Prime Minister, but I join her in saying that I would certainly like that to be the case.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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The Minister is obviously not able to give an indication yet of whether the Prime Minister will be attending COP15, but can he indicate whether a role equivalent to that of the COP26 President will be created to reflect the importance of that summit?

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
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I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Member does not think that is me, because it is very clearly part of my new role as a Minister to take up this cause. To be serious, I take her point. We do need to take this issue seriously, as this is a critical moment for nature globally. The UK is proud to be playing a leading role, and I am sure that, whoever attends and whatever title they have, we will continue to play a global leadership role in ensuring that we set the world back on the road to nature recovery. We recognise the importance of COP15 as a key moment in that.

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Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
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Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right about the presidency, which goes with the host nation, but I think the SNP spokesperson was talking about someone in the Government having that prominent role. I think that is correct.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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indicated assent.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I was saying, we are leading from the front to ensure that we have the policies and finance in place so that these ambitions are realised. As leader of the Global Ocean Alliance and ocean co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, we have worked closely with Costa Rica and France to bring together over 100 countries in support of the 30 by ’30 target. I am very proud, and I believe we should all be very proud, of the UK’s leadership to date in bringing parties together and building consensus through partnerships such as the leaders’ pledge for nature, which has now been endorsed by more than 90 political leaders.

We are determined to work with fellow countries to translate our joint ambitions into action on the ground, by building consensus and finding solutions to help agree a strong global biodiversity framework. To secure not just 30 by 30, but all the targets that are so necessary to protect nature, we need urgently to demonstrate our collective seriousness about closing the large funding gap over the course of the next decade. The UK brought nature from the margins of the global climate debate into the heart of our response at COP26. Ensuring that promises made in Glasgow are honoured in full, that we build on them, and that they are translated into effective action as soon as possible are huge priorities for the UK in the year of our presidency and beyond.

Making sure that aid is aligned with our goals is also hugely important. Indeed, we are leading by example, by doubling our international climate finance, investing at least £3 billion of that in nature, including nature-based solutions, urging other donor countries to do the same, and launching a pipeline of new programmes that will help people to protect and restore biodiversity on land and sea. We are calling on multilateral development banks to mainstream nature across their entire portfolios, as well as supporting countries when fulfilling their commitments to the Leaders Pledge for Nature. We are also pulling every lever we have to get private finance flowing in the right direction, from reducing risk to increasing investment.

Adopting a new framework at COP15 will not be sufficient if we do not also put in place mechanisms to ensure that countries can implement it. Frameworks need to result in action on the ground. The global failure to achieve the Aichi targets was driven by partial and insufficient implementation. That was arguably because parties found it challenging to translate international targets into effective national action that could be delivered at the scale and pace needed. The post-2020 global diversity framework must be underpinned by enhanced planning, reporting and review mechanisms that will hold parties to account for their commitments and support implementation—that was the point about data raised by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). It is so important that we help countries to develop those capabilities.

The UK, in partnership with Norway and the UN environment programme world conservation monitoring centre, has led a programme of workshops to support discussions between parties to enhance mechanisms for planning, reporting and review, with the aim of strengthening the implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and achieving the ambitious 2050 goals and 2030 targets. To summarise, the UK remains committed to securing an ambitious outcome at COP15—one that sets the direction and leads to action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss globally by 2030. We will work closely with China as the presidency, and support Canada as host in achieving those outcomes.

Many excellent contributions from across the House have raised many important points, and I will try quickly to respond to some of them. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked about the UK’s goals, and I tried to outline those in my response. We are clear about the goals that we need from COP15, and we must ensure that they are actionable. We need to see action. We do not need just more targets set or policies agreed; we need them to be put into action on the ground. She asked whether I would commit to keep Parliament updated, and as long as I am in post, I will be more than happy to do that. She also asked about the next Prime Minister attending COP15, and I have already addressed that issue.

The hon. Lady also raised the important matter of the maritime environment. As an MP who represents a coastal constituency—one of only three constituencies that has two separate coastlines—I am absolutely aware of just how important that issue is. We have made great progress on protecting our maritime environment, with over 100 maritime protection areas now in place, but I accept that we need to do more, and that we need to improve enforcement of the protection of those areas. I am more than happy to look into what more we can do to make sure those conservation areas are protected effectively—that it is not just a paper exercise. I would also point to the work we have already done in banning microplastics and the other measures we have taken to prevent maritime pollution, so I take the hon. Lady’s point, but she can be assured that the maritime environment is something I take very seriously.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (Fifth sitting)

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Tuesday 5th July 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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This is, of course, English legislation. As I said on Second Reading, the regulation of genetically modified foods is a devolved matter. The Scottish Government have been clear that they are opposed to GM food while they sensibly await confirmation of the EU’s position on gene editing.

The potential impact of the Bill on Scotland, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, must be recognised and commented on. Indeed, as we have heard from the Opposition, the Regulatory Policy Committee and others, there are concerns about a variety of trade, transparency and marketing issues that were not addressed in the impact statement. The Scottish Government have been clear that we intend to stay aligned with EU regulations as far as is possible and practicable.

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
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I have been listening closely to what the hon. Lady has said. At the very beginning of her speech, she said that the Scottish Government were against genetic modification or genetic editing, but in her next sentence she said, “but we are waiting to see what the EU is going to do.” Which is it? Are they against genetic editing or are they waiting to see what the EU does before they change the law in Scotland?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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It is quite simple. We are currently opposed to GM food, but obviously we do not want to erect further barriers to our largest market, so we are waiting to see the position after the review.

The amendments and new clauses that I have tabled and which we will discuss later on seek to amend the 2020 Act to ensure that the Scottish Parliament’s authority to legislate in the marketing of precision bred organisms is respected, and seek to prevent the operative parts of the Bill from coming into force until a common framework agreement on precision breeding has been agreed between the UK Government and the Scottish and Welsh Governments. I would be grateful if the Minister, when she rises to speak, could give an explanation of why that common framework procedure was not followed before the Bill was introduced.

If the UK Government press ahead without taking such steps, we are concerned about the impact on exports due to what is currently a much higher bar for approval in the EU. We heard criticisms in the evidence sessions that the category of precision bred organisms is not recognised anywhere else in the world, and is not based on scientific criteria, which could present problems for trade in those goods. If the EU retains its current opposition to gene editing, there are, for example, concerns about the export of Scottish salmon to Europe, and to France in particular. It has been suggested that products might be considered on a product-by-product basis, but we have heard little detail and there are real questions about cost and workability.

On the need for alignment with the EU, I have tabled new clause 10, which would ensure that, if gene editing does get the green light, we ensure strong labelling and traceability. Otherwise, how do we prove to European importers, while the EU has its current approach, that the product has not been contaminated? I know that is a loaded word, but it expresses the views of a considerable number of people who are concerned about GM foods.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. Is she saying that we should not bring the regulations into force until the EU has brought its regulations into place?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Yes, I am. I thought I was fairly clear on that, and I think the Scottish Government’s position is very clear. I refer the hon. Member to the letter that the Scottish Government wrote to the UK Government on the issue recently.

My new clause would ensure clear and visible labelling—

None Portrait The Chair
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Order. I gently say to the hon. Lady that we are discussing the amendments before us—amendment 29, 30 and 28. I do not want her to use this debate as an opportunity to give us a taster of her future speeches. She will have plenty opportunity to make her case on her amendments. Could she make sure her remarks relate to amendments 29, 30 and 28?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Thank you for your guidance, Mr Davies. If the Opposition were to choose to press amendment 29 to a vote, I would support it. From the moment the Bill was published, the Scottish Government raised the issue as a direct threat to Scottish interests. The EU is not considering animals as part of its review, so the potential for the UK Government to align with our largest trading partner and its eventual position is even further reduced by this measure. I look forward very much to the Minister’s comments on those points and to the points I raise in the future.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge for his opening statement, which highlighted that Labour is supportive of science and innovation, and of making sure that as a country we optimise those things in which we really do excel.

I acknowledge the support that the Bill has received from the research community, industry and a broad base of stakeholders. We heard in the evidence sessions how important and exciting this area is, and about the potential benefits for the food system and the environment. None the less, at the outset, I would like to state that I appreciate the concerns raised. I hope that the debates that follow and the way in which we proceed reassure the hon. Member and others. We intend to move slowly and steadily and to follow the science.

As explained on Second Reading, the Government believe that legislation has not kept pace with developments. The existing provision is some 30 years old, and our understanding of the safety and benefits of technology such as gene editing has advanced significantly. We have already taken that first step in regulatory reform with the statutory instrument that came into force in April. It has already enabled exciting research in the hon. Gentleman’s and my part of the world, East Anglia, into high vitamin D tomatoes, which could bring health benefits to many, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s observation that even in that case we need to think carefully.

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As I have said, we heard from Dr Lewis of Genus in our evidence sessions. PRRS is a truly devastating disease, taking hold of pig populations both in the intensive and extensive rearing systems across the UK, and indeed across the world. It causes high mortality, suffering and acute antibiotic use at a time when we are trying to address challenges such as antimicrobial resistance, and it costs about £1.75 billion across the European Union and the UK alone. I ask Members to consider why we would not want the Bill to allow technology to acquire the ability to alleviate the effects of disease on the health and welfare of pigs and other animals.
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I appreciate the Minister’s enthusiasm and her ambitions for everything that the Bill might be able to achieve, but given that Europe is not looking at gene editing for animals as a part of its review—certainly not at the moment—how will that further affect our trade in animals with Europe, particularly if no labels or traceability are attached to these animals?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I believe that the hon. Lady has tabled amendments on that subject, and we will come on to discuss them. In my view, this is part of our responsibility, alongside that of the scientists, who are at the forefront of what they do. I would gently temper the hon. Lady’s description: this is not unbounded enthusiasm; it is pragmatism. It is about a deep belief in our science and our ability to do good; that is different from enthusiasm. We are building in transparency, and we need to utilise those skills. On my visits to these great institutes around the country, I have met scientists and researchers from across the world, not only Europe. Although I take the hon. Lady’s point about gravity economics, what we do has a broader benefit to people across the world. There are clear benefits.

We need to safeguard welfare, and that is why we have laid down in the Bill a framework for the regulatory system. It is imperative that we get this right. That is why it is important that we work with expert groups, industry and non-governmental organisations on enabling the right regulations to ensure that the system is effective, safe and workable.

All animals are protected by comprehensive and robust legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering and to not provide for their welfare needs. The Bill’s system to protect animal health and welfare will work with those regulations. The Animal Welfare Act is supplemented by detailed regulations on farmed animal welfare. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 include specific requirements to protect animals that are bred or kept. The regulations prohibit breeding procedures that cause or are likely to cause suffering or injury. They state:

“Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”

In addition, animals used in scientific research projects, which would be the first stage of developing a breeding line using precision breeding for animals, are protected by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986—ASPA—which was referred to in the evidence we took from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was glad to see that that is the case. This legislation ensures that animals are only ever used in science where the potential harm to animals is limited, there are no alternatives, and where the number of animals is the minimum needed to achieve a scientific benefits, and that includes a harm-benefit analysis.

The measures we are introducing support the regulations by requiring an animal welfare declaration and independent scrutiny by an expert group before an animal can be marketed. We are ensuring that the health and welfare of the animal and its offspring will not be adversely affected by any trait resulting from precision breeding.

If we want to drive innovation and investment in this area while continuing to be at the forefront of animal welfare, we need to move forward and show how the best regulatory systems can work. The Bill provides a clear signal that the UK is the best place to conduct the research and bring products to market. I therefore urge the hon. Member for Cambridge to withdraw his amendment.

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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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When we discuss clauses 11 to 13, I might raise some examples of where I am concerned about animal welfare standards. I do not think the farm animal welfare codes are particularly effective. There was concern about seven years ago that the Government wanted to put them on a self-regulatory footing. I need to check what happened with that, because there was public outcry about self-regulation on that front. The Government did a complete U-turn, but I am not sure whether they have tried to do it by stealth in the time since. I have a mental note to check what has happened to that since I played a leading role in trying to stop it being moved to that footing.

There have been undercover exposés filmed at certain farms about the way some animals are treated. I like to think I have a very good relationship with the National Farmers Union and Minette Batters. The vast majority of farmers want to do the right thing, but looking at some of the red tractor farms that are meant to be higher welfare and seeing what is being uncovered as a result of people going and filming, we cannot be complacent. The red tractor mark is meant to be a badge that consumers can trust to mean higher welfare, but there are many examples where they do not seem to have met those standards. That is proof that something is going wrong in the system.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I draw attention to clause 17, which is about the importation of precision bred organisms into England in this case, although the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 means that it can affect the situation in Scotland, too. I am not clear what kind of monitoring there would be of the gene editing procedures that are taking place in the countries that will be importing those organisms into the UK.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a fair point. Hopefully we will come to that when we get to clause 17.

To conclude, Joanna Lewis at the Soil Association talked about this “unhelpful trajectory”, and how that is in conflict with the Government’s goals on the sustainable farming transition. She says:

“We therefore need to ensure that we are not accelerating that trend through carte blanche deregulation.”[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Public Bill Committee, 28 June 2022; c. 56, Q92.]

I agree. She goes on to say that there is an opportunity to put good governance at the heart of the Bill, and to get that public interest test in there, which I support.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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That is helpful. I am sure you are aware that there are other views on that. Thank you, Chair.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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Q You spoke about discussions with the devolved Administrations about this. I heard this morning that the discussions around this did not go through the common framework procedure. Are you able to tell me why that was?

Professor Henderson: I am afraid I am not. As a chief scientific adviser I am here to talk about the science. I spoke to my scientific counterparts and officials in the devolved Administrations who have a scientific interest, but I am not aware of the process you are talking about.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I am told that it is only being offered retrospectively, which seems odd. Obviously, Scotland has said that it will wait until the consultation with the EU is completed. What will happen if the EU goes down a different route with gene editing and genetically modified organisms? We are trying to export products to the EU but the EU Commission’s first question, probably quite rightly, will be, “How do you prove whether the product is non-gene edited or gene edited?” Once it is in the environment, as I understand it, it is very difficult to remove, particularly in the case of crops. How will we do that without labelling and proper traceability schemes?

Professor Henderson: This is a double-edged sword because it is genuinely scientifically impossible to tell precision bred organisms from traditionally bred organisms in some cases, and therefore this will become a problem, regardless of the legislative environment that we work under, and it will be harder and harder to trace these types of organisms through systems globally, not just in the EU.

In terms of this legislation, all varieties that are approved for growth will be on a seed varieties listing and will be designated. It will clear that they are PBOs, as per their listing. So if you are shipping tomatoes or something, it will be possible for that to be a discrete product that can be traced to the extent that is required through that process.

It becomes more problematic with products where things may be blended, and then it will be up to the producers or those selling to make sure that they have a supply chain that will satisfy the people they are selling to.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Right, fine.

None Portrait The Chair
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Order. I just want to say there are two minutes left.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I have one question left. If a gene edited animal breeds with a non-gene edited animal and produces offspring, how would they be described? What label could be used to describe those products?

Professor Henderson: Just to make sure I understand you correctly, are you talking about a precision bred organism breeding with a non-precision bred organism?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Yes.

Professor Henderson: You might be better placed asking this question to animal breeders later today, but I imagine this is to do with the way in which you describe the varieties and the strains of livestock when you are sending it to market.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Yes. Are you saying you cannot answer that and that I am better off speaking to animal breeders?

Professor Henderson: From a scientific point of view, I will again come back to the point that a precision bred organism and precision bred livestock is scientifically equivalent to something that could have been produced with traditional breeding approaches, so scientifically that coupling would not create a concern.

None Portrait The Chair
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We have just under a minute. Do you have a question, Daniel Zeichner?

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I understand that point. Thank you.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Professor Whitelaw, I hope to visit you soon at the Roslin Institute, along with your local MP, who has spoken glowingly of you for some time. The Scottish Government want to wait for the EU consultation in this area to be complete before approaching gene editing in the way that the UK Government are. That presents potential problems if the EU decides to stay where it is or just moves marginally, or has a different approach from the UK Government’s approach. If that happens, how do you see that affecting trade with the EU and our export trade there? This is the big concern for the Government. What is your answer to that?

Professor Whitelaw: I am not sure I can comment on export trade. It is not an area that I am knowledgeable about, but maybe I can comment more generally. One of the benefits of the Bill is to give momentum to investment in this area. I do not mean just money, but talent coming into the field, into the universities, and students knocking on my door and saying, “I want to do a PhD on genome-edited animals.” I see that increasing and I see that as a huge benefit for the UK and for Scotland. To me as a researcher, that is one of the major drivers—to see that investment opening up. Yes, it will happen in the commercial world. We have seen how other countries that brought in legislation on genome editing have seen a proliferation of small and medium-sized enterprises and innovative ideas coming through. That is what I want to see come out of the Bill. That is the bit that drives me. I am really not knowledgeable about the impact on exports.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Dr Lewis, you were discussing the PRRS—the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome—that you are working on. Could you tell me how quickly, once this Bill comes law—if it becomes law—you will be able to scale up and it all becomes commercially available? If you could have a stab at that, it would be helpful.

Dr Lewis: It depends on the timeline and when the Bill would come into effect. Rather than talking about a specific gene edit, one way to also ask the question, even in the current state, is: when I produce an elite animal today, how long is it until it really impacts the whole flow of pigs? I can answer that perfectly today. Based on the structure of the pig industry, you have to have pure line animals, then you have to create crossbred animals that are the mothers of the commercial offspring, and then you use a terminal sire. Basically, if you look at getting the whole pyramid to be 100% influenced by new genetics—you are putting in three different levels, three breeds coming together—that would roughly be about five years.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Five years. That is interesting. Thank you. I have asked other witnesses that question just to see how long it would likely take.

Finally, Roslin has got a tremendous reputation for really high quality research. Do you think the Bill guarantees the absolute traceability of gene edited products and also the strictest possible monitoring of what science is doing in this area, or is there more that could be included in the Bill to ensure that?

Professor Whitelaw: I will answer the science question, then touch on the traceability. Our science is very well scrutinised through current legislation, because it is under the contained use. We have to go through a variety of permissions before we do an experiment with animals, and that is visible. Therefore, I do not think the Bill will necessarily affect the regulation of what we are doing; but as I said, I hope it increases the volume of what we do.

When it comes to traceability, which was mentioned earlier, genome-editing technology generates the equivalent of what is naturally found. Every animal born carries 40 de novo mutations, and genome editing adds another one to that list. Without having an audit trail of individual animals, you will not be able to identify one genetic change from another. It is impossible to categorically say, “That is caused by genome-editing technology rather than a natural mutation.” Therefore, the audit trail of an animal or product will not be based on the molecular analysis of that animal; it must be based on something else.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Which might be?

Professor Whitelaw: Craig might be able to answer this more clearly, but depending on the species, that might be breed books or production systems, which would be embedded within the companies or with different nations.

Dr Lewis: We should be very aware here that there is a species component to that. When we start thinking of cattle, for historical reasons, there is a very strong traceability element through the cattle chain. However, if we look at the pig industry in the UK, it is more done on a—shall we say—lot basis. For example, normal practice in the UK pig industry is to use pulled semen at a commercial level for a terminal sire, so even within a litter, you might have three or sires represented. That is today, so an individual animal traceability in the UK pig industry today does not really exist. When we answer the question on traceability and what exists today, that is very species-specific, rather than “This is the livestock sector.”

Professor Whitelaw: This is the basis of all of my thinking. We are using these tools to create precision changes to the genome—changes that can happen naturally. There is no difference between those two. There is a difference in how they arise; one is because we choose to target a specific DNA sequence and change it, and the other is just a random lottery that evolution throws up. However, from the animal’s perspective, and I would argue from our perspective, in how we look at these animals, it is just a genetic variation that exists. There is no difference. Going to the traceability question, why and what are you tracing?

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab)
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Q I know you do not deal with IP, but if it is a natural occurrence, why is IP applicable? Surely, it is not invention; it is a genetic coding. I am just keen to know why you feel you then have the right to impose intellectual property rights on something that, as you are arguing to us, is naturally occurring. Yet, you will impose intellectual property, I would imagine, to be able to make a profit. I am finding a logical failing there. That is just to put that one out there, and maybe you can come back on to that.

We have been dealing with crops so far, and we have now moved on to animals. I must admit that I am now beginning to struggle with this slightly. We are not talking about plants but about sentient animals, and about genetic modifications to them.

The thing I have been reading about PRDC—porcine respiratory disease complex—is that part of it comes down to environmental and conditioning factors. There are obviously some pig farmers, for example, who keep their animals in better conditions than others, but many do not. Even when you keep your animals in optimal condition, there are certain conditions that they are kept in that will encourage that disease.

My question is on behalf of the millions of people who are increasingly becoming vegan or vegetarian. We are now introducing genetic editing to enable us to keep those animals in sometimes quite horrific conditions. It is for this disease at the moment, but what is to say that exploitation of these animals is not going to only deepen? Now we can keep these animals knee deep in their own crap—sorry, Ms McVey—and we can edit their genes so they can survive in those conditions. That is how some people will see this and that is how much of the public will see it. Can you give me some reassurance that that is not going to happen? When profit is the bottom line, I see these animals becoming more robust and able to live in ever-more extreme and difficult conditions.

Dr Rice: Perhaps I can jump in. If you have read about PRRS virus, you will probably know that it is actually not dependent on conditions. Animals in the wild, as well as animals in production, all get sick. What actually happens on farms today is that farmers have to install multimillion filtration systems—because viruses are airborne—to filtrate outside air through very complicated filtration systems so that viruses cannot get into the farm. So it actually has nothing to do with the conditions.

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None Portrait The Chair
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If we could all be conscious of time, please.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Nuffield Council has obviously welcomed aspects of the Bill, but there will be a lot of detail required in legislation that we have yet to see. A lot of it seems to subject to the negative procedure as well. If the Bill is amended as it goes forward, what are the main areas that you want strengthened in regulation?

Dr Mills: I concur with Dr Campbell. In the first place, there is quite a lot that is opaque or simply missing, because it is subject to further regulations. It is unfortunate in some respects that you will have to debate the Bill with those uncertainties in front of you. It would be nice to see the constitution and membership of the animal welfare advisory body, for example, specified. The powers, resources, reporting lines and enforcement functions will be really important in thinking about how well whatever government system we end up with for precision breeding functions.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Would you speak a little about the point you make in your document about the release of precision bred organisms, and about the reassurance you are seeking on the inclusion in primary legislation of a minimum prescribed period for those proposed releases? How might that be published? What time would be needed to examine that? What are your thoughts on the current shortcomings on those issues in the Bill?

Dr Mills: This may be a minor and easily remedied technical point, but certainly from my reading of the Bill, it struck me that in order to release a precision bred organism one had to comply with part 2 obligations and notify the Secretary of State. If that organism was not being made available, however, or marketed, I do not think there is any further obligation to secure prior permission. If that is the case, at the very least the power to make regulations to provide a period during which that release can be examined, representations made, decisions reached and possibly enforcement powers brought to bear should be given effect. That power should be exercised mandatorily rather than at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Did you want to say something, Mr Stevenson?

Peter Stevenson: Yes, if I may. As I said earlier, I think the animal protection provisions in the Bill need to be clarified and strengthened. For example, clause 11, requires an applicant for a marketing authorisation to assess and identify the welfare risks, and clause 12 says the welfare advisory body must then make a report on whether the applicant has properly identified and assessed the welfare risks. To some degree, the way it is written puts the applicant in the driving seat—playing the lead role in determining which welfare risks will receive primary consideration. The Bill needs to be amended to make it clear that it is the welfare advisory body that is in the lead. Of course it will look at the information supplied by the applicant, but the Bill must require the advisory body to carry out its own independent, far-reaching investigation into the possible welfare risks. It should not be fettered by just what the applicant has said.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Thank you.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
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Q Mr Stevenson, if you could change the Bill, what are the key changes you would make? For example, do you agree ethically with the plant component of the Bill, in terms of gene editing plants, but not the animal side? You have talked about some of the changes that will need to be made on welfare and about putting the farmer, or whoever it is, in the driving seat with the changes you talked about just now. I am keen to know if you make a distinction between plant gene editing and animal gene editing. Does the Bill go far enough in the revisions that it makes to deal with gene editing of animals, or do you want to throw it out completely?

Dr Mills, on gene edited exports, one presumes that once this biotechnology is achieved, it does not make a difference what welfare rights we have in this country for animals. A big part of the Bill is giving British biotechnology the ability to get out in front on this, and we could then sell that technology to other countries that have much lower animal welfare standards. Is that a concern?

Peter Stevenson: I do not know enough about plants to give a proper opinion. When it comes to the animal side, as I said earlier, there are a few cases in which I think gene editing could be beneficial, but ideally I would like to see animals removed from the Bill and much more thought given to how gene editing is going to be used and what protections should be there before legislation is introduced.

For example, the arguments that gene editing can be beneficial in terms of disease resistance have been overstated. Yes of course, if you are looking at diseases that have nothing to do with the way animals are being kept, gene editing for disease resistance can be helpful, but the science is absolutely clear that many diseases stem from keeping animals in intensive conditions. Very specifically, the crowded, stressful conditions in intensive livestock production can lead to the emergence, the spread and the amplification of pathogens. Gene editing should not be used to tackle such diseases. These diseases should be addressed by keeping animals in better conditions. There is a very real danger that if you gene edit for resistance to diseases that primarily result from keeping animals in poor conditions, that could lead to animals being kept in even more crowded, stressful conditions, because they may be resistant to the diseases that are inherent in such conditions.

Having said all that, I suspect Government isn’t about to drop animals from the Bill. I have talked about how the Bill should be strengthened in terms of giving a stronger central role to the welfare advisory body, but it also needs to be strengthened in setting out what that body should be looking at. The Bill is very unusual. Usually primary legislation provides more definition.

For example, the welfare advisory body should be looking for things like a piece of gene editing aimed at animals growing faster or providing higher yields, and asking, “Has this caused a problem for animals that have been selectively bred for such purposes?” If it has, it should be very careful and look at whether that is likely to happen with gene edited animals. It should also be asked to look at whether the desired objective of the gene editing could have been achieved in less intrusive ways. An awful lot more thought needs to be given to the use of gene editing in animals.

I will add one point. It is more than 50 years since Ruth Harrison’s book “Animal Machines” first alerted us to the dangers of intensive livestock farming, yet gene editing is doing exactly that: treating animals as machines that can be fine-tuned to make them a bit more convenient for us. The Bill sits at considerable odds with the recent Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 that regards animals as sentient beings. The two do not mesh.

Dr Mills: To pick up on what Mr Stevenson said and to clarify, the Nuffield Council certainly sees many benefits in genome editing as applied to animals. Unlike perhaps a number of other commentators on the issue, we does not see genome editing as necessarily being the last resort. We recognise that, in some cases, there are social conditions that are every bit as intractable as the biology of animals; indeed, given the technologies that are becoming available to us, the biology of animals is perhaps more tractable. Our way of approaching this is to treat those things symmetrically and to consider in what way different interventions might promote a just, healthy and sustainable food and farming system, taking into account the interests of the people and animals that are dependent on that system.

You asked about the technology being sold to countries that have lower animal welfare standards than the UK. I am very happy to live in the UK, a country that does respect animal welfare. Of course, the science and the technology are very easily translated across national and jurisdictional boundaries, but that really is an argument for the governance of breeding according to purposes. It should be consistent with the purpose of securing safe, just and sustainable food and farming systems. A technology can be applied in any number of contexts, and one cannot necessarily control them all. However, if you set out in the right direction, you have a much better chance of arriving at a desirable destination.

Dr Campbell: Chair, may I comment on that?

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you. I call the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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Q Thank you, Mr Stringer. Mr Exwood, the Minister asked you about your members’ views. Have your members been surveyed on the Bill, and if so, what did they say? Is there a difference in views on this matter between, say, organic farmers or small family farms, and larger farms?

David Exwood: Absolutely. We run our consultation process and work up our policy as one organisation that brings in all sectors—organics being one of them. I think everybody recognises the advantages of technology; everybody recognises the benefits that breeding brings. That goes for organic farmers and smaller farmers as well as large farmers. We have to co-exist alongside organic farming in all circumstances—we are very clear about that. We do not see that as a challenge; we already run slightly separate systems and it does not significantly alter business in any way.

The key element of the Bill for small farmers is that it is drafted in such a way as to make it as widely available as possible. It needs to be open to as many farmers as possible—that is how it will bring the most benefit. Breeding actually brings benefit to all farmers, and a good variety of wheat or sugar beet, say, is something that all farmers will benefit from, regardless of their size.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Do you agree that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to protect organic farms from what they might see as a sort of contamination—if I can call it that—from those products?

David Exwood: Yes, I do. As I said, we run existing codes, and conventional and organic already co-exist. This does not change that in any way. We have to make sure that we are able to do that. There has to be a co-existence—I am very happy about that—which is a key part of our policy and our ask. I do not see the Bill as being a challenge to that.

Dr Ferrier: The market for organic versus conventional or other systems currently enables segregation for different specifications that the market might ask for. We see that continuing to run as it does at the moment. When a buyer has particular specification, there is certification for organics. As we understand it, the certification for organics would not currently allow the use of precision bred organisms. Obviously, that could change, allowing for segregated supply chains, just as with food-grade versus industrial-grade oilseed rape, or with sweetcorn and forage maize, which are kept apart.

If you are getting a new variety of a particular crop, for example, and you grow a crop for seed multiplication purposes, the high-purity requirements for that seed are there and are managed within the supply chain. We see that continuing to apply for organic farmers.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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Q Earlier, you were asked about our relationship with the EU on this matter, and you mentioned progress in precision breeding across the world. How does that fit together, where is most of the research taking place, and which countries should we look at to make comparisons with the UK?

Dr Ferrier: Certainly, the most recent development in countries reviewing their legislation, and one that I think would be really useful for you to look at, is what Health Canada, the Canadian authority, has done. It has recently reviewed its legislation and put out some technical guidance. The key thing is that it confirms that precision bred organisms do not pose any additional safety risks compared with conventionally bred plant varieties. That is driving Canada’s regulatory process. It is not proposing different authorisation and risk-assessment processes. It does not believe that that would add any significant benefit for consumers or the environment, because the science does not show any additional risks—that is very similar to the European Food Safety Authority opinion from the end of November 2020.

Argentina is certainly a very interesting case. Since it has put in place proportionate and enabling regulations—such as those that the Government propose in this Bill—it has seen a real increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises and public-good breeding R&D activities taking products through that regulatory process, so that it is not just the preserve of the largest companies that are able to pay for and absorb any uncertainty in a less ideal or dysfunctional regulatory process.

Japan is another example of where a product—a tomato—has been through that process. In countries that put in place proper regulation, the actual process is functional and works well for the companies. Those countries then see investment in R&D and into commercial companies. That is bringing through the products. South America, North America and Japan are investing in this. It is interesting to see how quickly the science develops into commercial opportunities once the regulations are right.

David Exwood: The challenges that we face as farmers in the UK—sustainability, climate change and so on—are the challenges faced by farmers across the world, and we are all looking for solutions to those problems. It is interesting that across the world, there is a move on this technology, which we are seeing quite widely. That is because everybody is looking for answers and solutions to the challenges that we all face.

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None Portrait The Chair
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You are back, Professor Henderson. We move on to the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q The Scottish Government have stated that they will wait to assess the outcomes of the EU consultation on gene editing and GM. Some feel that the UK Government are rushing ahead with the Bill, potentially to the further detriment of trade with the EU. The UK Government are clearly very confident in the evidence they have received on this, because they are pushing ahead with it. Will you tell us about the peer-reviewed evidence that the Government are relying on that supports the claim that gene editing can make farming sustainable and environmentally friendly? Can you point to that evidence?

Professor Henderson: I can. There is a very wide range of peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the benefits that can arise from the use of gene editing for precision breeding, for building better crops. The list is long and I would be happy to share a long list of some of the references. There was a review paper published in Nature in 2019 that I often refer back to, which summarises the many routes by which we can use gene editing to enhance crops.

I am wary of time, but I could talk at some length about the different sorts of crops that might be beneficial in this context. There is also an extensive peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the safety of these technologies and the fact that the unintended consequences through precision breeding are generally lower than those through traditional breeding, and particularly some of the more extreme mutagenic forms of precision breeding. There is very extensive scientific literature.

You started your question by pointing to the differences of opinion politically on the different sides of the national borders within the United Kingdom. I should say that scientifically, there is not a difference of opinion as you change nations in the country and certainly leading scientists in this sector in Wales and Scotland have also been very instrumental in the peer-reviewed literature that I have mentioned, and they agree with the sense of direction of this Bill, although their political leaders do not.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q And the potential impact on trade with the EU?

Professor Henderson: As a scientist, trade is less my area of expertise, but to some extent you could argue that this Bill would enable more trade, because it will enable better crops and more crops to be produced, and therefore they could be more readily traded overseas, giving more market opportunities for UK farmers and markets. [Inaudible.] Therefore, I do not see an immediate problem with any trade with the EU, either.

It is also true to say, as I believe your previous—[Inaudible.] Sorry, are you still there?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We are. We missed a little towards the end there, Professor.

Professor Henderson: I am sorry; if it happens again, I will switch wi-fi on to my phone. I do apologise.

I was saying that, from an EU perspective, the final thing to say is that the EU itself is of course consulting on changing the law in a way similar to the way that we are considering, and it is quite likely to change on the same timescale that we will be producing marketable crops.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q All that is very interesting and very good, but I do not actually see that this is covered in the Bill as it stands. This is all going to have to follow through secondary legislation, is it not?

Professor May: That is correct. At the moment, part 3 of the Bill encompasses the direction of travel, but not the details. That is something we are working on at the moment.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Food Standards Scotland produced a paper in March of this year that pointed out potential for regulatory divergence between the four nations of the UK and that the Bill could result in Ministers in England taking decisions on the approval of genome-edited food and food products with little or no involvement from Food Standards Scotland or, indeed, Ministers in Scotland. It is an independent authority, as you know. Can you tell us how that relationship will be approached and managed, if the Bill becomes an Act?

Professor May: Happily, I am here as a scientist, so I can say that, scientifically, we have an extremely close working relationship with FSS and other regulators around the world, but the closest is with FSS.

If I give an example, at the moment, risk assessments that we might do in FSA are shared very closely with FSS. All that process is done together. Often we are using the same sets of experts—for example, to provide information. Once the risk assessment is done, it passes to a risk management process. I cannot think of an example where there is a difference in the risk assessment part between nations, because the science is the science.

Where there are sometimes differences is in the risk management area. A current example is raw drinking milk, because the science around the risks of drinking such milk is the same, but England and Scotland have different views on how much risk is acceptable. Under this framework, I would fully intend that we would share all the science around the risk assessments of a precision-bred product. Ultimately, though, the decision on a risk management basis and whether to authorise it would fall to Ministers in each of the individual countries.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

That is helpful. Thank you.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for your time this morning, Professor May. We heard from a previous witness that the EU is likely to develop its work on gene editing along similar timescales. Given the need to share information, how will the FSA and the European Food Safety Authority share information as we go down this path?

Professor May: Previously, prior to Brexit, everything was handled at the European level. As I just mentioned, we share informally the scientific advice, which is very international. Often the people who are providing evidence for a risk assessment are the same people—they may not even be within the EU, but wherever that expertise is available in the world—so there is quite a lot of sharing at that level. Currently, our only formal arrangement with the EU on food safety is around alerts. An alert for a food safety issue that may have an impact on the UK is passed to us, but something that affects countries outside and has no impact on the UK would not necessarily be shared.

I think all of us hope that there will be a reciprocal arrangement for sharing information in future. It is in everyone’s interest to share as much evidence and data as possible, but that is obviously not in my gift to control. There is recognition in the EU that the current GM framework is not fit for purpose for these kinds of products, so the process is already rolling in the EU to look at how it might be changed. How long that will take, and what the outcome might be, will obviously be very different. I would anticipate that it is going to take longer than it will in the UK to get resolution on that.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You mentioned alerts. Obviously, nobody wants to leave it until there is an alert situation, but what about developing more formal mechanisms as we go forward, rather than relying on the good will of scientists?

Professor May: Sitting here as a scientist, obviously I hope very much that there will be good sharing. As I said before, it is in everyone’s interest to share the best science and the best evidence around this. Happily, building those relationships is not in my purview to organise, but I hope that there will be sharing, particularly around the horizon-scanning function. For us as a regulator, it is really critical to think about not just what is on our desks now, but what will be there in two, three or five years’ time. What is the science that we will need to assess the potential risks of products that I have not even thought of yet? Collaborative agreement around what might be coming down the road is really critical for all of us.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Something occurred to me when I was looking at the Bill again last night. Do you feel that you have sufficient capacity to be able to cope with the extra responsibilities that you are taking on? Have the Ministers given you further guarantees that you will be supported in that?

Professor May: That is a very good question. It is hard to predict based on the estimation of what might be coming to our desks. On the one hand, the Bill will remove a tranche of products that would otherwise have been assessed as GM products. We already regulate GM products, and there is the capacity. On the other hand, the purpose of the Bill is to stimulate development in this area, so we may end up with a lot more applications, in which case we are going to need additional resource. We have taken steps in that direction, including recruiting independent experts in this area to provide scientific expertise, but if there were a large volume of applications needing consideration, we would need additional support.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, Professor May. To return to the discussion that we were having a few moments ago about information for the consumer, to what extent does the Food Standards Agency have a role in providing general public information and education? If that is not the role of the FSA, who should be doing it and how important is it?

Professor May: Our statutory mandate is to protect consumers and represent their interests as they pertain to food. That includes a communication role ranging from allergy alerts and food withdrawals through to a more nuanced understanding of the food system—food security, food poverty and those kinds of questions. At the moment, we do a fair bit of public communication around issues that we know consumers are interested in. Precision breeding, on which we have done some work, is a good example. An explainer on what genome editing and precision breeding are, and what impact they might have, is available on our website, for example.

We do a limited amount of work with schools—particularly in some regions of the UK—mostly on food hygiene. There is an opportunity to do more to explain to people the honest truth about food, and to help them to make decisions about safety and their purchasing decisions in that space. There is always room to do more. There is a lot of consumer interest in this class of foods, and I anticipate that we will do more to make sure that people have the facts about it that they will want.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you. I will leave it there for the moment.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q The Scottish and Welsh Governments have clearly stated their intention at present for precision bred organisms to be regulated as GMOs. How will ACRE’s advice on releases to the environment take account of the fact that the Welsh and Scottish Governments currently have a different approach from Westminster on this?

Professor Dunwell: Well, we realise that the jurisdiction is different. We have observers at ACRE meetings from the devolved authorities—not at every meeting, but they are clearly invited to attend, and some of them do. They can add their own input into the discussions, even though it will not apply within their jurisdiction. Then of course we have the fact that much of the good science goes on at the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and elsewhere. Those are world-class centres of science doing this type of research. I am sure that among those scientists there is an intrinsic frustration about the political environment that exists, but I am not going to comment on the policy at that level. ACRE as a committee had sessions in Edinburgh some three or four years ago, and we have spoken to the relevant committees directly. I was part of those discussions.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Is there a counterpart for ACRE in the EU Commission that you have regular dealings with? Obviously, the devolved Governments—certainly, the Scottish Government—are waiting to hear the outcome of the consultation that the EU is undertaking on this area. Can you tell us a little about how that is working currently?

Professor Dunwell: Under the EU system a lot of the discussion was part of EFSA. Obviously it is different now, but in those days it fed back information to ACRE. Even though we have kind of split, we still take account of and look at the EFSA reports on a regular basis. We keep up to date with the discussions in the whole area of science looking forward, because it is our responsibility to make sure that ACRE is not just an isolated UK silo. We have those reports and there still are UK people who sit on EFSA committees, even though we are not part of the official system. It has not disqualified the scientific input from the UK into the EU, which is an interesting element in its own right.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Yes, indeed. I am glad to hear we are not completely cut off. That is great. Getting back to genetically engineered crops, some say that when they are grown on a commercial scale, the risks of escape and contamination are greater. Is that something that you agree with?

Professor Dunwell: Well, it is the terminology “escape”. Perhaps it comes from releasing things into the environment, which has some implication to it, but there is no evidence that any existing genetically modified things that are on the market have any greater impact on the environment either through pollen dispersal or propagule dispersal than any existing variety has. Just because it is genetically modified or, in the future, gene edited, it will not intrinsically expand the danger of gene contamination, which is often an objection.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q So the fact that these are expanded and grown on a commercial level will not have—

Professor Dunwell: It is not relevant. There is no evidence for that.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Okay, thank you. Can you tell me a little bit about the old-style GMOs and whether all of them would be included in the definition of a precision bred organism?

Professor Dunwell: No, they would be excluded. You have taken a gene or genes, and you accumulate the numbers of genes. Some of the things that are being grown in the States now might have eight or 10 transgenes —separate genes—all inserted into the same variety. That is completely different from what we are discussing today, which is minor changes that are much more equivalent to forms of mutation that have existed for ever. The domestication of crops relied on mutations, but we did not know at the time what they were. Agriculture and what you eat today is a product of natural mutation.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Forgive me, but could you expand a little on what you said about the US and the insertion of seven different—sorry, I am not a scientist.

Professor Dunwell: There are lots of maize varieties that have been proposed and are grown commercially in the States over large areas. Initially, 20 or so years ago, they just had one or two genes, which were to do with insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, but over time the numbers of genes have been pyramided together, either by introducing them all at once or by crossing together a transgenic plant that has one insert and one that has two, so there are varieties now with six, eight or 10 different genes from different sources in one commercial product.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q So that has developed over that 20-year period.

Professor Dunwell: Yes, and it has been done by—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. May I just say that there are a number of people who wish to speak? If there is time at the end, I will come back to you, Deidre. I call Andrew Bowie.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is a really important point. I may be wrong, but I do not see anything in the Bill enabling that.

Professor Lovell-Badge: Nor do I.

Alessandro Coatti: Under clause 11, when a marketing notice is given in relation to a precision bred animal, the Secretary of State reserves the right to get information from the notifier, over a specified period of time, about the health and welfare of the animal, so that is already covered in the Bill.

Professor Lovell-Badge: But how you do that is not clear.

Alessandro Coatti: No, and a lot will depend on very good guidance from DEFRA or ACRE about how to do that. But that power is in the Bill, at least.

Again, the need for post-marketing monitoring comes down to the trade that you are introducing, not whether you use a technique. It will be important for whoever advises the Secretary of State to be able to tell them, “This change warrants longer-term monitoring, but this other one does not, because we have seen it in the species over many years. This is just a better way of doing it, and it will not dramatically alter what we already know about the trait.”

Professor Lovell-Badge: Remember, many genes have effects in multiple tissues, so you may be focused on changing something—modifying CCR5 for HIV resistance, for example—but not realise that it may also be active and play some role in the brain. That is a clear example of where you may have an issue.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

Q The Regulatory Policy Committee brought out a report just a few days ago that concludes that the Government have not made a convincing business case for the deregulation of precision bred organisms in the food system, and it suggests that more narrative around

“competition, innovation, consumer and environmental impacts”

should be included in the Bill. Would you agree that there is insufficient detail on that in the Bill currently?

Professor Lovell-Badge: I think I would agree it is insufficient. You have to factor in everything: the environment, farming practice—how whatever you are doing, whether it is with plant or animal, is going to fit in with or change farming practices. I think there needs to be a lot more thought about those issues.

Alessandro Coatti: I am not entirely sure I agree. Could you tell me again—those people said that the Government have not made a case for deregulation of these organisms?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Yes, it is insufficient currently. They feel that there is a need for wider discussion of the impacts on the environment—woven throughout the Bill, I think—than currently. I wonder what kind of environmental impacts you would like to see included.

Professor Lovell-Badge: It depends. If you are saying it is the same as traditional breeding, then yes, it is probably the same, often, or very similar.

Alessandro Coatti: The case for deregulation—let us put it that way—is that basically, with these technologies, you can achieve changes in the genome that are potentially done already in traditional breeding. You are just doing it in a more energy and resource-efficient way—faster, etc. So there is definitely a policy case for this Bill, because research and innovation in this country can really provide those beneficial traits in plants and animals that we desperately need at the moment.

On the question whether this Bill captures all the potential impacts on the environment, for example, from a release of one of these organisms, you would think that the organisms that are passed through this Bill will not particularly need extra monitoring relative to the traditionally bred counterpart, if you see what I mean.

However, there could be boundaries or grey areas where a change could have arisen traditionally but it is not so common. Therefore, the committee should be able to trigger an additional risk assessment; and in my view, it looks like it can. Now, the question is this. On the environmental risk assessment, there is not much detail in the Bill—that is true—so it will be down to ACRE to provide more detailed guidance and analysis on how it would want the environmental risk assessment to be done.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q If I may, I will ask one very quick question—well, it will not be that quick, actually. The answer will probably be quite long. I want to ask about the difference in regulatory regimes, potentially, between the UK and the EU. No matter how long that might be—we do not know; obviously, the EU will come back after its consultation next year. I just wonder what you think the impact might be, and whether in your view that will affect trade and potentially investment in the UK. Is that a tricky one?

Professor Lovell-Badge: That is a hard one. The EU will have to change—that is my view—because it is going to be way behind other countries, too. We are not talking just about the UK and the EU; we are also talking about the US, Canada, Argentina and other countries. If the whole regulation about genetically modified organisms and genome editing is not made more compatible with actually getting on and doing stuff that is useful, the EU will suffer, because it will ultimately—

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

But the impact here, in the UK, on trade? Obviously, it is the UK’s largest trading partner, so if it continues to be—

Professor Lovell-Badge: I can imagine there could be an impact. It is hard for me to tell what that might be. It is not my area of expertise at all.

Alessandro Coatti: Yes, I would not be able to discuss in detail how that might be. You probably need to have experts on it. But I am aware that the Food Standards Agency has produced a report on these changes in regulations and this evolution across the globe, and there is definitely a case for the UK to try—we say we would like the UK to lead the way, as it has done with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. The UK could still lead the way by making legislation—regulation—that other countries would copy, but there is already a lot out there, so it has to harmonise with the regulations in other countries, such as Japan and Canada. It seems like the Bill is going one step in that direction. In terms of the relationship with the EU, as the closest economic partner and one of the biggest markets that the UK trades with, it is important for the UK, not necessarily to slow down excessively, but to maintain dialogue with the EU Commission while it reviews. The UK in the past has created legislation that the EU has then taken on. For example, when it comes to animals and research, the UK has led the way on the protections—eventually the EU adopted some of those elements. Even though the EU is not politically obliged to anymore, it could still value that.

Professor Lovell-Badge: You may be about to get to labelling. I think the registry is a good idea, because if someone wants to import something from the UK, at least it is then obvious that it could have been genome edited—otherwise they might not know.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have already established that the Bill covers plants and animals, but not micro-organisms. Given that there were suggestions from DEFRA that animals would be considered later down the line, I wondered if you had any thoughts on the fact that they are now included in this Bill.

Alessandro Coatti: In our response we commented mainly on plants and animals, while making some reference to other uses. There are already leading labs in the UK looking at genome-edited livestock species, for example, and how doing genome editing in those species could be beneficial on many levels. I am quite sympathetic to the fact that animals are included in the Bill, even though there is less of a history of genome editing, and genetic modification, in animals than there is in plants.

It seems to me that more safeguards are added here for animals than for plants. There is animal health and welfare assessment as part of the Bill. With animals, it seems clear to me—but Robin can correct me—that genome editing can be used quite safely. We are talking about the techniques and the process, not the outcomes and the traits. If you look at the techniques with the animals, with a number of species you can be pretty sure that you are making the right change in the genome that you wanted and that you are not adding unwanted changes anywhere else. We can say that there are not many additional risks when it comes to technique, relative to traditional breeding. However, that still has to be caveated a bit.

Professor Lovell-Badge: Some of the methods of genome editing are now so efficient and precise that I do not think it is a great concern, but you always have to check. There are good ways of checking what you have done and what you have got. I would not be that concerned. You would have to check the original animal that has been modified, but once you get to subsequent generations, you will be pretty certain of exactly what you have, and of anything wrong. The methods are being used in humans for somatic genome editing. We know a lot about them and how accurate and safe they can be.

Alessandro Coatti: We pointed out two things in relation to the methodological aspects. Robin mentioned one aspect before: how the gene relates to the phenotype. You change something and then you have a trait change in the animal. Some genes have functions in different organs and tissues, so you want to ensure that by doing something you are not messing up something else. That can be done and has to be done as part of the Bill—you should make sure that it will be done.

The other question is about the reproductive techniques you sometimes use to work on the embryos. Those can also have health and welfare implications for the animals, but it should all come down to an expert committee reviewing the application for the genome edited animals, which could say, “Okay, it looks like they checked everything they should have on the technique.”

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, that’s helpful. May I turn to the two professors? On innovation in general, in essence, the argument is that innovation will happen because obstacles are being removed. Is that enough to foster the kind of innovation that you would hope to see, based on your passion and excitement for this technology?

Professor Napier: I think it was mentioned earlier that with innovation, it probably needs to be developed as a public-private partnership, which sort of implies that there needs to be a market pull. Using the term “market” can be slightly perturbing because, in reality, the drivers for what we want to see translated are much bigger than the economics. They are things like global climate change, food security and all the global pandemics associated with malnutrition and overconsumption. Those are the challenges enshrined in sustainable development goals and things like that. Those are the things that we should be occupying ourselves with. We need to use everything we can to try to fix those challenges. Rothamsted and other places like that—in fact, everybody—should be working towards those goals and overcoming those challenges.

Listening to what Bill said about IP, I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about IP because it is an area that I have to think about a lot. The beauty about the UK is that we have a really strong research use exemption, which allows us to operate in a way that is not encumbered, at least at the research level, by IP. We are in a really good place. I think the bigger barrier to innovation is what I have already mentioned: it is not IP but the cost of regulatory approval. That is why I am so worried that in new legislation, if we start building in layers of costs associated with more regulation, we are just replicating what we had previously under the EU regulation. I think that would be an enormous missed opportunity if we go down that road. That is my personal view.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q I want to go back to Mr Angus’s comments about ownership or the licensing of genes and his concern about that. How would you address that, as people involved in this area? What measures should be taken? Clearly, people are concerned about the patenting of crops.

Professor Napier: You cannot patent a gene. There was a case in the US that made it quite clear that you cannot hold a patent on a gene. That legal precedent is quite clear, from the famous case of Myriad. I am not too worried about that. In reality, it is analogous to what you see in the pharmaceutical sector and relates exactly to your point about understanding the drivers for innovation. You need to couple it with economics.

All these things are moving parts, which you need to make the whole thing work. To pull it forward, you need to have an economic case and some form of protecting your invention—patents are a good way of doing that. The example I always give is that my mobile phone probably has 2,000 patents-worth of components in. Nobody gets upset about that. It is about understanding how you can best use this technology. I also do not want to sound like some sort of gung-ho free marketeer, because I am absolutely not. I work in a Government-supported institute. I do not work in the private sector. I probably want the best of both worlds.

Professor Halford: As public sector scientists, at times in our careers we have been told we should be patenting everything, and at times in our careers we have said, “Well, it's unethical to be patenting this stuff.” I think we have a pretty robust patents system. You cannot patent discoveries of genes; you have to patent an invention. That seems to have worked for mobile phones and it works with pharmaceuticals, many of which are biologicals. I do not see why it cannot work in crop high technology.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Professor Halford, you mentioned that you have the largest gene edited wheat crop trial in Europe—is that right? Could you talk us through what will happen if this Bill becomes an Act? What steps will you go through to get the product to market, and where will your involvement end? I would find some clarity on this really helpful.

Professor Halford: We have used CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out a gene that makes an amino acid called asparagine, which gets converted to acrylamide. That is our target.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

You are giving Hansard a few challenges today.

Professor Halford: Acrylamide is a processing contaminant, so it only forms during processing; it is not in the plant. For consumers, it is not an issue—we could talk about that all day—but it is quite a big regulatory compliance issue for the food industry. We are trying to reduce the potential for acrylamide to form during processing by reducing the amount of asparagine in the grain of the wheat. That is where we are at the moment.

Because you do a GM step to put the CRISPR machinery into the plant, some of those components are still in most of the plants we have, so the field trial is running under GM regulations at the moment. The editing has been done, and it has worked. We have very low asparagine wheat grain growing in the glasshouse, at least. We are in the process of crossing away the GM bit, and we do have some plants now—not in the field trial, but under glass—that are now GM-free. They are a qualifying higher plant, and we have registered them as such.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q I am thinking about getting it to the commercially available stage.

Professor Halford: We have five plant breeders working with us. If it pans out in the field and it all looks good, we could hand our genotypes over to those breeders and they could start incorporating the trait into their breeding lines. That process would take probably five to 10 years. We have five years’ consent to run the field trials. You need several years before you are going to convince a breeder that your trait is stable and it will give them what they need. There is nothing rapid about the process.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

That is really helpful, thank you.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am just trying to get my head around some of the comments that have been made so that I can apply them to the legislation. I think Mr Angus felt that intellectual property rights were a potential barrier to entry, whereas you felt that an excessive regulatory framework was a barrier to entry. What would the main barrier be?

Professor Napier: In my opinion, it is regulatory approval that is the barrier.

--- Later in debate ---
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q How would you achieve that public interest test?

Joanna Lewis: I would really recommend that you look to Norway’s gene technology Act. I have not gone through it line by line, but it feels like a valuable precedent from a country that also sits outside the European Union and is looking at what governance can apply—to make sure we are not just presupposing the benefits. Commercial drivers are not given free rein, and if there is to be a relaxation of regulation, you can do it with the confidence that it is going in the direction of supporting more sustainable farming. I believe the test that it set is that something is of community benefit and supports sustainable development. I do not know whether that is fully adequate, but it is a precedent that is out there and merits some consideration.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q Clause 3 sets out the conditions under which a person can release a precision bred organism in England. Do you think the measures within that are sufficient? Probably not. I would be interested to hear where you think they might be strengthened.

Christopher Atkinson: You are right in supposing that we feel the measures are insufficient. We need a high degree of traceability and the ability for organic producers in particular to understand where crops are being grown and the risk of contamination.

Roger Kerr: The other aspect is that, as we have heard from previous speakers, there is not going to be a significant amount of investment in producing this material unless there is sufficient visibility over where it is, because of the likelihood that it will disappear into the food system and the businesses that have developed the technology will not be able to recover the costs. There is an issue in understanding the full and public visibility over where these crops are being grown, who is growing them and where they are going, so that there is the opportunity to see where that product has gone, so that people can recover their investment.

Steven Jacobs: The Bill says that the organism is

“a marketable precision bred organism”

and

“the qualifying progeny of a marketable precision bred organism”.

One of the issues is what will happen if there are—and we are assuming there will be—many precision bred events put into one product, whether that is livestock or crops. In crops, for instance, you can have stacked traits. The issue is around that crop being bred with something else and some of those traits being passed over, perhaps unknowingly.

We have seen incidents where herbicide resistance has gone out into the wilder environment and that has caused problems. For instance, there was a case on the Swiss-Italian border where herbicide-resistant oilseed rape that was not grown in Switzerland was found on the railway. It had leaked out of the railway carriages. That is a problem because they spray herbicide to keep the railway sidings—all the ballast—stabilised. Now, they have a situation where there is a herbicide-resistant weed in a location that would normally be sprayed in order to keep the railway safe. There are incidents where one would need to see some measure of traceability in order to evaluate. It is not just our need; I would suggest that there is a public and commercial need.

Roger Kerr: On livestock, take a genetically edited bull, for argument’s sake—I have picked cows because I like cows. He will have sired innumerable daughters that will go on to be crossed back. They may be crossed back with a non-GE sire. At what point do they become non-GE? Obviously, going back through their parentage, there will be GE material in there. From our point of view—from an organic standpoint—the question is: at what point is it no longer a genetically edited animal, if its forebears were genetically edited? There is a lot of concern around how we manage this issue, how those things are defined and who, ultimately, owns the genetic material within that animal, albeit it is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of something. There are concerns there.

Joanna Lewis: It also feels that the solution in terms of implementing supply chain transparency, traceability and labelling is eminently achievable. It does not feel like a big barrier to bring that into the scope of the Bill in order to address those concerns and allow the legitimate needs of citizens who reserve the right to choose to reject this technology, and to preserve the integrity of organic systems. We are obviously at a point in time where the industry is buzzing with big data supply chain solutions and wanting a whole new resurgence in food labelling to show the citizen everything about the provenance, origin and production practices of their food. It should not be a big barrier to this Bill’s intent to include that requirement for full supply chain transparency and labelling.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - -

Q So a real commitment to transparency and some effort to address the possibilities of unintended consequences on the back of this need to be tightened up in the Bill?

All witnesses indicated assent.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Going back to what was being said about animals, particularly what Joanna was saying, I want to try to unpick this. It has been mooted that one of the benefits of the Bill is that it could result in the breeding of more disease-resistant animals and in less use of antibiotics in livestock management. The downside is that that could pave the way for more intensive farming, because disease obviously spreads when lots of animals are herded together. That does not necessarily mean that making animals more disease resistant and not having to use antibiotics on them is a bad thing.

Some witnesses who gave evidence this morning said that it is not the Bill that is at fault. There is a completely separate argument, they said, about whether we want to increase the intensification and industrialisation of animal farming. Where do you sit on that argument? They said that the animal welfare codes deal with some of the concerns. I would say, however, that they are not operating in the right way at the moment, because we already allow a degree of intensification and, to my mind, animal welfare standards are not good.

On the separate issue of increasing yields from animals, cows produce an awful lot more milk than they would have done a few decades ago, and certainly a lot more milk than they need to feed their own calves. Where do you sit on the use of this technology for that purpose? Finally, do you think that the Bill’s provision for the Secretary of State to refer things to a welfare advisory body is a sufficient safeguard? Sorry, that was an awful lot of questions, and you do not have much time to answer.

Joanna Lewis: You asked whether you can separate the intention of gene editing to solve animal welfare problems from the broader challenge of facilitating the perpetuation of systems that result in very poor animal welfare. I think it is important that we bring these together—as the public brought them together in the Nuffield Council on Bioethics public dialogue. We know that conventional animal breeding trends have been to prioritise greater yield, litter size and fast growth over the welfare of sentient animals, and we know that the argument for gene editing is partly that it speeds things up and is likely, therefore, to accelerate those trends. The public were saying, through that dialogue, that this is where they want to see governance. They want the Government to come in and say, “This is our vision for the future of animal farming. This is how it is going to become a higher welfare system that also delivers for climate, nature and health. This is the role we want to see gene editing play in that context.”

I know that you will be hearing evidence from Compassion in World Farming on Thursday, and I know that amendments will be proposed to try to make sure that there are additional tests—which could be linked to the Secretary of State’s powers, secondary regulation or the role of the welfare advisory body—on whether these traits are going to focus on yield, litter size and fast growth and cause lasting harm to the welfare of the animal. Also, are they going to perpetuate, facilitate or enable a farming system that is very detrimental to the welfare of animals? Those are the amendments that will be coming through from animal welfare bodies.

Roger Kerr: In terms of the disease-resistance issue, we have to be really careful about how we approach this. What we have seen, albeit through the use of antibiotics, is the reduction of disease. Again, unfortunately, I am referring back to the dairy industry. We have seen farmers driven to reduce cell counts in dairy cows to a point where the cow’s immune system has been suppressed to such a degree that the more virulent diseases come in, because there is not the natural, more benign flora around any more. Therefore, you have cows going down with E. coli and other things, which is killing them. We have seen this continual drive to reduce the immune system and reduce the cell count.

What we have found more recently is that allowing the cow to have a more natural immune system actually allows it to live a longer and healthier life. We have to be really careful when we start talking about disease that we do not start messing with something but then find that we end up with a whole lot of unintended consequences in terms of opening the animal up to other disease implications. Ultimately, we will just end up on the same old wheel of trying to continually firefight because the animal is going down with disease.

On the yield aspect, again, we can keep saying, “Oh, well, we can genetically breed them to produce high yield,” but what we find is that the longevity of the animals is massively impacted. These cows that can produce 12,000 or 15,000 litres of milk do not live very long because, unfortunately, cows are just not designed to do that. We have to be really careful about what we consider to be a farm animal and what it is there for. If we continue to drive it, we are effectively supercharging its physiology, and therefore it will ultimately not be able to live as long.

Using cows as an example, if you go into a collecting yard or a cubicle shed, you will see the cows breathing really quickly, even though they are lying down, because their physiology is going so fast. What we are effectively doing at the moment is turning what was a very low-input, low-output animal into a Formula 1 car. Unsurprisingly, they do not cope with it and they fall over. What we are doing now in terms of genetically editing is stepping that up a whole other gear. We have to be really careful about what it is that we are seeking to achieve here, and I think we have to look, in terms of welfare, not only at disease resistance but at longevity, quality of life and ability to withstand other disease impacts.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Which begs the question of why you had to register. However, I think we could probably go round in circles on this. Chair, I am quite happy for us to move on to other questioners.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Professor Oldroyd, you mentioned tight restrictions on validating the safety of gene-edited organisms. I just wondered whether it is possible to use field trials to assess sufficiently whether there are major impacts, or even minor impacts, on local ecologies once the crops are grown at a commercial scale. How do you take that into account?

Professor Oldroyd: Let me describe how we get to the point. For instance, I have some gene-edited material out in the field right now and we measure everything we can possibly measure in that material, from its effect. These are affecting plant microbial interactions, so we are particularly looking, for instance, at what is happening in the soil. We have the wild type and we have the gene-edited line, so we can precisely compare, to understand any differences in the local environment caused by the gene-edited type or the wild type. That is intrinsic to the research programme and we have to do those field trials before anything even gets close to commercialisation.

Therefore, intrinsic to working with this material is that we are already putting it out in the field. If I then hand it to breeder, they will then be doing breeding in their lines with that material and also doing extensive field trials, testing many factors, according to their performance relative to other lines. Ultimately, if it gets released as a variety, then NIAB, under the jurisdiction from the Government, tests and compares those lines relative to other lines on their performance in the field.

So there are many points along this track where we are actually testing the performance—as a researcher myself; as a breeding company; and then as NIAB, creating the recommended list. There are multiple factors all along the way that are already intrinsic to the process.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q All of that would provide sufficient protection before any of these were grown commercially, at such a scale that it would be, I would imagine, quite difficult to prevent impacts, if they were happening.

Professor Oldroyd: That is the process that we have put in for mutation breeding, for instance. For mutation breeding, I irradiate the seed to create mutations in the seed, look for the lines that give a trait that is useful, and then breed that into the conventional lines. That is already happening; it underpins a lot of our food production and we have a regulatory framework to ensure that what we are actually releasing out into the world is safe and effective.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q And you think that the regulatory framework contained within the Bill is sufficient?

Professor Oldroyd: I think it is certainly sufficient for assessing the validity of material produced by methods that are no different from what happens in nature.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Thank you. Finally, you mentioned that your funding was a mix of public and private, Dr Harrison.

Dr Harrison: Yes.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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What are your thoughts with regard to, say, Mr Angus’s previous points about the ownership of genes or the licensing of genes, and trying to ensure that that does not become a problem for breeders such as Mr Angus, or indeed for growers. We have discussed that in a few panels, so I just wondered how his point could be addressed.

Dr Harrison: Bill was talking about the breeder’s exemption, which means that once a variety has been protected it is put on the market, and any other breeder can then take that material, cross with it and do onward work.

If I understand it correctly—this is an area that is changing rapidly—there is still uncertainty, as Jonathan Napier said, about what can and cannot be protected. Patenting genes is very difficult, so it is more likely that the technology will be protected than the genes themselves. Even so, there could be some instances where there is some level of protection around a particular trait.

There are schemes now being set up that would allow the breeder’s exemption still to apply in the event of a licensing for a particular gene-edited trait in that variety. So those systems are being set up by industry at the moment, because ultimately there is a win-win there, because the licence holder of the intellectual property will want to see that out there at some level, and the plant breeders will want to use the material. I am not an expert in this area, and I am not a legal expert, but I understand that there are schemes being set up to take account of that. That is only in the instances where stuff is actually protectable; most stuff probably won’t be protectable, so the breeder’s exemption will still apply and people can still cross with it.

The bigger issue—the one raised by Jonathan—is that if you have an overly burdensome regulatory landscape of pre-authorisation to take something to market, for many that will be the thing that kills the technology. It is really important that that proportionality remains. It is only for things that may substantially affect nutrition that you would go down a route whereby the FSA would even class it under novel food regulations. I would expect that the majority of things being developed are agronomic traits, which would—as they do in many jurisdictions, such as Canada—sit outside the purview of food standards and are not classed as novel food in any way. They would progress to the market just as conventionally bred things do at the moment.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I suppose I am thinking back to the Soil Association representative’s point about 60% of seed grown in the US—or it may have been worldwide—being held by four companies. Is that a route that we would rather not go down, or is it not something that you are concerned about?

Dr Harrison: Do you mean in terms of additional—

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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If they take over and buy out smaller breeders, for example.

Dr Harrison: You have to look at the situation. The market is one thing, and the Bill is talking about gene-editing technologies and whether they are substantially different. Personally, I do not think that the two are really related.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Although it is certainly bound up in the arguments about gene editing and genetic modification.

Dr Harrison: In many ways, among the small and medium-sized enterprises such as Bill’s, in a landscape such as the UK, where there is a lot of innovation happening, there are start-ups starting now that want to do breeding and gene editing, so you may well see the opposite happening: a democratisation of the process and more people entering the market as the barrier to entry is much lower because of the regulation change.

Professor Oldroyd: The food production sector is no different from any other sector in this free market economy. I hear a lot of concerns about a few companies owning most of the seeds, but I do not hear the same about a few companies owning most of the drugs, cars, phones, clothes or any other product. That is a reality of our free market economy. The food production system is just like any other sector; there are major players who have a sizeable part of the market share.

Richard made a very important point. The phenomenal restrictions that are being put on traditional genetic modification have actually meant that only the big players that have deep pockets can use that technology. I feel as though we have ended up in the situation that most people feared, where a few companies have total control of a technology, and that is principally because of the cost of releasing those traits. If we follow the Bill and treat them as equivalent to conventional breeding, we absolutely liberate the technology for SMEs to get in the game. At the moment, they could not afford to do that with GM.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab)
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Q It is good to see you again, Professor Oldroyd and Dr Harrison. Your last comments have thrown my question in many ways. You said that not much is said about pharmaceuticals and other products in the free market, but that is quite a low bar. I have been involved with the trade-related aspects of intellectual property waiver campaign. A big part of the global south is campaigning to have access to the understanding of how to make anti-covid drugs, and they are struggling.

I do not think that is a model that I would want to apply to food. Some of us would like to see something more robust that did not make the mistakes that we have made on pharmaceuticals, for example. Food supply is critical, especially as we move through the 21st century with the climate crisis and a growing population. When I was asking you questions as a BBC journalist a long time ago, I was always struck by your passion for the science and for communicating the science. As currently constructed, does the Bill provide the protections we need? Outside your laboratories, away from the pure science, there are free-market corporations for which the bottom line is the end game and the main driver. Do you feel that this science is beyond abuse and beyond being used in the same way that perhaps big pharma have cornered those markets?

Lastly, I understand the notion that reducing barriers opens up the market to small and medium-sized companies, but the history of any industry shows us that big players begin to hoover up small players over decades, and you end up back in an oligopoly or monopoly situation. That does not necessarily have to happen, but that is what usually happens with new tech. There is a free-for-all when everyone piles in, but ultimately people sell up and move on, and the big companies hoover up. When you get past the science and it reaches the real world, do you feel that there is the opportunity for abuse? Does the Bill protect us from that?

Professor Oldroyd: With the caveat of clause 3, legislating gene editing as equivalent to conventional breeding is the best way to allow small to medium-sized enterprises to become involved in the technology. If you really want to see a break in major corporate ownership, lowering the barriers to how you get a product from that technology is almost certainly going to facilitate that. As I said earlier, the big problem currently with GM is that it is so costly to release a GM variety that only “the big four” can afford to do that. I think that taking this approach will help that ownership of lines.

Certainly from me, as a researcher, the Bill as it currently stands greatly facilitates me to work directly with plant breeders and move products through the conventional plant breeding mechanism into the market and on to the consumer. Some of that plant breeding is in the big four, but quite a bit of it is not. Those are more the medium-sized enterprises, not necessarily BASF or Bayer, although they do have a role in some of that. I think the current Bill will certainly facilitate that broadening of ownership of the technology and a speeding up of the impact to the consumer.

Dr Harrison: If I could add one small point, our public research institutes in the UK have a pivotal role to play here. We do research funded by the Government in this area and we publish that. We can protect it before or we can just publish it so it is free and able to be used by many.

You could really think strategically about how those research organisations are used to direct change in the way that one would want to see, so that varieties come on to the market either nearly complete, so breeders can take them up, which is often what happens, or even release complete varieties, as happens in many other countries, from public funded research organisations. Again, that allows freedom of choice, so varieties come on to the market that have traits that are desirable and do not suffer from the problem you point out, which is that some small companies may become subsumed into larger companies.

Thinking about it more broadly—this is outside the scope of the Bill—there is an absolute opportunity for the UK to lead on bringing those traits to the point at which they can be taken to market, in a variety of different ways that are not just dependent on the big four.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q I will follow up on that, in that case. If there is that confidence, why the reluctance to allow consumers to know how their food is being produced? Polling from the Food Standards Agency suggests that consumers want that. Is there not a danger that it looks as if you are trying to hide something?

Sam Brooke: We are absolutely not against full transparency of breeding methods. Most breeders have already taken their own initiative to highlight, on their websites and social media platforms, how varieties are produced. I think it was back in March 2021 that we wrote to the Secretary of State, George Eustice, and said, “No, BSPB is absolutely up for transparency on the breeding process.” It is just that the best way of doing that is through the chain.

We have worked with DEFRA and looked at how we can easily bring that step into the national list process by highlighting what breeding process was used, because we already do, to a certain extent. For example, if it was a hybridised crop, we would have to highlight if it was cytoplasmic male sterility or a chemical-hybridising agent system, so we are already doing that. That, for me, would be another step forward and would support the public register, which is in the Bill and which we absolutely support.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q You just spoke of the UK’s considerable reputation for offering protections around the breeding processes and so on, making them very safe. Does that differ markedly from the protections that the EU offers? Is the UK leading in that respect?

Sam Brooke: Naturally, we have been following EU legislation and have been historically aligning, quite rightly, with EU legislation on this, where we have our nearest trading partners and the majority of plant breeders. Because it is such an expensive industry, the majority of plant breeders are breeding at least for Europe if not internationally, because varieties travel quite nicely, especially to our nearest countries in the EU. We align with that. The key difference is probably that we have a lot of expertise in the UK and we want to keep that, because plant breeders are based here and actively breeding here—they have labs and food trials here and we have this fantastic, world-leading research and development in the likes of NIAB, John Innes and Rothamsted.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q We had a plant breeder in before—Mr Angus—who talked about his concern about ownership and the licensing of genes and, I suppose, the potential concentration of ownership into larger companies. What are your thoughts on that? Do you share that concern?

Sam Brooke: No, I think the Bill has the potential to open up the technology a lot more. It will naturally open up what traits are available both publicly and privately, but I would imagine especially publicly. The majority of new traits that have come through historically have come through publicly.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Is that is something you would like to see continue?

Sam Brooke: For me, it is all about choice. That is the most important thing. We are not going to get great investment in these new technologies if these commercial business cannot make some money somewhere along the line. We have to be able to protect that IP, which we already do very well in the UK with our current royalty system. We currently protect new varieties and IP on varieties very successfully, which makes us a great area for investment in plant breeding. I would like to see that maintained.

As I mentioned, there are different trait licensing platforms already available. For example, Corteva is one of the big ones, as we may want to describe them, which has already initiated its own platform for accessing its traits. I do not think it should be seen as a concern. There are already breeder exemptions around using new varieties, and I do not see this being any different when we get to using precision technology.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Okay, that’s interesting.

None Portrait The Chair
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If there are no further questions, we will bring this session to a close.

Examination of Witness

Dr Alan Tinch gave evidence.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q To follow up, I was thinking more of it the other way round. If there was a time lag or a different view was taken in Europe, would you have to have two different production systems—one using gene edited animals, and one not? What are the practicalities of that?

Dr Tinch: If the legislation puts in place a system whereby gene edited animals would need to be labelled, you would need to have parallel systems. My argument would be that gene editing is a means of creating genetic variation that is identical to the variation that would occur naturally. As a consequence of that, we are not seeing products that are different.

If I identified a gene for disease resistance in a group of animals in the population that I was farming and bred it into the population for supply into the food chain, or I gene-edited the animal with the same genetic change—the same mutation—those animals would be identical in their genetics and performance, but if we labelled them and identified them differently, we would be creating two levels of animals within the production system that are essentially different. That would cause more problems than required in terms of the science behind the technology and the proportionality of how we are dealing with that lack of genetic difference.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Hello, Dr Tinch. It is good to see you. We have heard from folk who have been dealing with arable crops and so on, and there is a suggestion that the commercial benefits of this Bill would not be realised for anywhere between five and 11 years, but I wonder what the difference would be for aquaculture. Say the Bill becomes law, how quickly could we see commercial benefits for aquaculture farmers?

Dr Tinch: The key difference—let me know if I get too technical, as I do not want to drift away—is in the amount of time it takes to go from generation to generation. Some aquaculture species have a very short generation interval and can grow up and produce eggs quite quickly. For a lot of the warm water species that are farmed, and imported and exported around the world, we could move quite quickly because they have a short generation interval and they produce large numbers of eggs, so we could quickly be in a situation where we are producing animals with gene edits. That would be species like shrimp and tilapia. Shrimp are consumed at high levels in the UK. Tilapia are not, but they are still consumed at high rates around the world.

Atlantic salmon are much slower in terms of their growth and maturation. It takes at least three years—probably four years—to go through that cycle from egg to egg. From a practical point of view, we are not going to do it in one generation—it would be a couple of generations—so for Atlantic salmon we are talking at least four years, probably nearer eight years, until there were significant numbers of Atlantic salmon edited in the populations.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Assuring quality control, if you like, would presumably add quite significantly to that lifecycle, so are we talking 10 years?

Dr Tinch: Well, if I go back to the example of the gene that was discovered in Scottish populations for disease resistance, it was described in 2008 and was at high levels in commercial populations in 2015-16. Do not quote me exactly on those numbers, but it was that sort of timescale to go from identifying the animals to using them in breeding, going through the multiplication system and coming into production. If we were able to do that, and the technology would allow us to move as quickly as that in some populations by editing the gene, making the change and then breeding from those animals, we could move as quickly as that—a generation and a half to get it to high levels in the population.

The process that breeders go through normally to assess their animals is as you describe: if you discover a mutation, you look at it in the population, look at its effects on a number of different traits, and judge that it is an animal that is capable of performing well in the production environment. If everything is favourable, you then take it forward into production. That was the example relating to infectious pancreatic necrosis in Atlantic salmon. The gene had an effect on disease resistance and it did not have any perceivable effects on any other traits. For the sorts of traits we are talking about in Atlantic salmon, the case would be the same: we would evaluate it within the populations in the breeding programme—typically thousands of animals—and then as that data builds up and everything works out, we would expand that to the commercial populations.

We could go as fast as that. Obviously, with short-generation species with higher rates of reproduction, we could go faster than that. That process of identifying the animal, looking at its performance across a number of traits and judging that is a process that can move at the timescale I have described.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I am not sure whether you will be able to answer this, but I was just wondering about food labelling. What are your thoughts on that, as opposed to the notification systems and the public register that is proposed in the Bill? Do you think there is a stronger case for labelling animal products than crops—plants?

Dr Tinch: To go back to that position—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Just before you answer that question, may I ask you not to lean too far forward into the mic, because we will miss your face, and we do not want that? Could you stay neatly there for lip readers who need to follow you?

Dr Tinch: No problem. On labelling—going back to the position that says the genetics we are talking about is indistinguishable and identical variation that occurs in the wild and in farm populations—if we say that they are identical, then logically I see no reason to label that. The product is the same, the means by which it was generated is slightly different, but it is identical, to all intents and purposes, to a mutation that would have occurred naturally. I see no need for labelling.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Okay. What about public opinion on that?

Dr Tinch: That is a different question.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Given agriculture is a subject of some contention in Scotland at times, what do you think?

Dr Tinch: It has been a hugely successful industry in Scotland. Your public opinion is interesting. To give a broad analogy, the other example of products being very close in terms of their composition and quality but labelled for production-system differences is organic farming. There is a drive there that says, “Okay, people are interested in the production system and they ask the product to be labelled to identify it as premium.” There is that precedent, but I go back to the position that says these are products that have identical composition. They are produced in different ways at the point where the mutation is either discovered or produced by gene editing, but they are identical at point of sale. I see no reason for labelling that, unless, like with organics, there is a premium for that sort of production system.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I see. This is a bit out of leftfield, but I heard earlier that there is a genetic technology Bill that has been proposed—or has gone through—in Norway. Obviously, there is a considerable amount of Norwegian interest in agriculture in Scotland. Is that something that you have come across, and if you have, are there any elements of it that you think could be applied to this Bill? Do you think it will have any influence on Norwegian-owned agriculture in Scotland? You are closer to the field than I am, but I am wondering if that is something that might occur.

Dr Harrison: Similar discussions are going on. A position on describing technologies where the outcome is the same but the technology used to produce it is different has been adopted, as it has been in a number of other countries—Canada and Australia. The principle of recognising that the product that is being farmed is the same as one that would have occurred naturally is being adopted by several countries. The danger is that we might come out of line with that.

The influence that Norway has over the UK and Atlantic farming industry is interesting in that it is a major player in the Scottish industry. Norway’s industry is technology led; Atlantic salmon farming is technology led and it will take the technology forward. I would expect that Norway takes its responsibilities as farmers and guardians of the livestock seriously, and farms according to good practice. The technology can be used as a means of improving performance, health and welfare of our animals. We should bring those sorts of technologies forward and use them. Those are the arguments that have been made in Norway as well.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Dr Tinch, it was very interesting to hear your perspective on that. I listened very carefully to your responses to Ms Brock about the time it would take for multiple generations to become viable and to get access to market. In terms of investment here and now, or at least in the shorter term, in research and development, we have heard from other witnesses about the attraction of promoting investment in other food sources. For example, not in today’s evidence but from elsewhere, we have seen reports from the Roslin Institute and James Hutton Institute that they are very keen for this legislation to come to pass. Would you say that is the same for your field of expertise, particularly in Scotland?

Dr Tinch: Absolutely. I am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and studied at the Roslin Institute, and have collaborated on a number of projects with scientists at Roslin in aquaculture, developing genetic solutions to disease resistance and applying those in populations. We are a local leader in terms of our ability to understand these technologies, develop them to the point of application and then deliver them through production systems.

The danger if we do not lead in that area is that the technology will move elsewhere. I now work for an American company working in gene editing in agriculture. I am not saying the reason I am doing that is because there is a lack of investment in the UK, but there is certainly lots of investment outside the UK in the technology and a lot of the technology is going to be applied in breeding programmes outside of the UK in areas where the legislation looks as if it is more permissive.

The UK model, particularly through the BBSRC and identifying projects that will have meaning within industry, is a very good example of how science should be applied and carried out. I have benefited from that on a personal level and a company level, in terms of my career development and the development of companies I have worked for.

The danger is that if we do not allow the application of new technologies, we will become part of the second lane in the use of this technology. I would not like to see that. Our approach as a country towards animal welfare and the way that we set up farming systems is world class. In many cases, we lead the way in the development of technologies. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and we will continue to review that, I understand, in a constructive way. We have very high standards in farming. If we prevent this sort of technology from being employed because of a precautionary principle, which is one of the areas where technology gets held back—“There’s a slight chance that there may be a problem that results from this technology, so we shouldn’t do it”— that is regressive. I do not think that is the way that we should take science forward.

We should understand the risks, evaluate the risks and look at the technologies. Where they are able to be used for good purposes, we should take them forward. That is the case for gene editing. If you look at the way that the research is lining up, and the way that the breeding companies are talking about the traits that they are going to use, these are examples of taking the technology forward to benefit animal welfare and the sustainability of animal production, and we should be one of the early adopters of the technology.

Oral Answers to Questions

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 23rd June 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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While the other place’s International Agreements Committee report broadly welcomed the Australia-UK trade deal for sectors such as financial services, it was concerned about the deal’s impact on UK agriculture, highlighting that it will allow the importation of beef from deforested land, crops grown with pesticides not permitted in the UK or the EU, and often no protection from copies for products such as Scottish whisky and Cornish pasties. The Committee fears that that will continue with other trade deals that the Government pursue and criticises their refusal to involve the devolved Governments. How can farms and our food and drink sector remain profitable in the face of such free trade agreements? Does the Secretary of State accept that his failure to achieve protections from untrammelled competition for farmers and food producers will ultimately have an impact on their businesses and livelihoods?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

In the context of the free trade agreement with Australia, we secured staging protections for the sensitive sectors of beef and lamb for a decade, and then a very strong special agricultural safeguard thereafter, set against volumes. We judged that that would be sufficient to manage any risks to the market. It is important to recognise that Australia cannot compete with the UK on the vast majority of agricultural products, including dairy. In lamb, New Zealand cannot compete with the UK and does not use the quota it already has. Beef is an issue that we are watching, but we believe that we have the right protections in place.

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The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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2. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of the (a) Elections Act 2022 and (b) provisions in the Online Safety Bill on the transparency of political campaigning communications.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester)
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The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act will increase transparency by helping voters understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement were extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency, while increasing the complexity of the law.

The Online Safety Bill would include new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Recently, openDemocracy highlighted research that suggests it is difficult to establish exactly what more than £3.6 million was spent on by the Conservative party before the 2019 general election because of unclear or even unavailable invoices. Without that clarity, it is obviously difficult to establish exactly what political campaigning communications resulted from contracts that included £700,000 and £1.6 million to political consultancy firms, or even from the 200 out of 300 local Conservative branches that apparently submitted returns with no invoices. Yet the commission said it was “not proportionate” to take enforcement action. Under what circumstances would the commission be prepared to take action?

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
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The commission reviewed the spending return delivered by the Conservative party following the 2019 parliamentary general election, and is aware that not all the required invoices were provided. Having reviewed the compliance of the return as a whole, it was decided that it was not proportionate to take enforcement action in relation to those missing invoices.

The hon. Member mentioned local associations, and local association campaign spending and accompanying invoices or receipts at a UK parliamentary general election are submitted as part of the spending return from their central party. The commission is required to publish the returns as soon as reasonably possible, whether or not they are complete. When a return is incomplete, the commission will consider what action to take in line with the principles of proportionality, as set out in its enforcement policy.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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The regulation of genetically modified foods is a devolved issue. It is important to emphasise that at the start because, as in a growing number of policy areas, the UK Government pay only lip service at best to the powers exercised in the Scottish Parliament, while at the same time running roughshod over devolution with their post-Brexit deregulatory agenda.

Although the intended scope of the Bill may be England only, it is explicit that it will have significant impacts on devolved areas. The devolved Administrations were, however, only informed of this just one day before the Bill was introduced, in a letter from the Environment Secretary encouraging them to adopt the Bill’s principles. A UK-wide approach can, of course, sometimes be desirable, but this invite creates an illusion of collaboration and choice when in fact DEFRA is acting unilaterally once again. Frankly, it smacks of contempt for our democratically elected Government.

If the Scottish Parliament refused to allow gene-edited crops to be planted in Scotland, we would still be prevented from stopping GMO products from being sold in our shops under the devolution-violating United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. This is exactly the kind of scenario the SNP warned against when the Tories forced that legislation through this place. I understand that DEFRA officials have now suggested that the Department discuss the UK Government’s plans to diverge from the common UK-wide GM regulatory regimes. Well, thanks very much, I am sure, but any discussions of that nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the Bill so that potential policy divergence could be properly considered. The fact that they have not is deeply regrettable and unacceptable.

The SNP is committed to ensuring that Scotland operates to the highest environmental standards, and that we protect and enhance the strength of Scottish agriculture and food production. If we end up with unwanted gene-edited products in Scotland, diverging standards with the EU could cause further damage to our sales, risking damage to Scotland’s reputation for high-quality food and drink.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
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The way the hon. Lady is talking about gene editing implies that one can tell the difference. It brings in variant genes from the same species. It is literally scientifically impossible to identify a gene-edited product if it is done properly.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I accept the hon. Lady’s experience in this area, but there are many scientists who would differ from that opinion.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I am going to make progress.

As previously, where the EU offers new scientific advice and moves to change legislative frameworks, the Scottish Government consider the implications for Scotland and seek to stay closely aligned with that approach where practicable. Holyrood passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 before Brexit, committing the Scottish Government to alignment with EU standards and regulations. In keeping with that, we are closely monitoring the EU, including its public consultation which I believe is continuing at the moment, as it reviews its policy on certain new genomic techniques.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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Does the hon. Lady not appreciate that farmers are also businesspeople and that a farmer will not grow something that the consumer does not want to buy? Does she insult the intelligence of Scottish farmers by suggesting that they will grow crops nobody wants to buy?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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This is about the devolved responsibilities of the Scottish Government and our intention to stay aligned with EU regulations, as we have committed to in the 2021 continuity Act. We are in constant discussions with farmers and will continue to be.

Surely it would be practical for the UK Government to follow the approach of monitoring the EU and its ongoing public consultation as it reviews this policy, ensuring alignment and avoiding divergence that could further threaten trade with our largest trading partner. As the European Commission’s formal policy announcement is expected in the first half of 2023, the wait would not greatly undermine the UK’s competitive edge but would ensure minimal trade disruption. The UK economy suffered a 4% reduction in GDP, according the Office for Budget Responsibility, thanks to a hard Tory Brexit. The last thing Scotland needs is further disruption to EU trade.

It is worth noting, too, that the EU’s 2021 study into gene editing and new genetic technologies highlighted that research into animals and micro-organisms is “still limited or lacking”, especially when it comes to safety. The SNP would advise the UK Government to return to the precautionary principle in the deployment of such new technologies, especially those developing produce for human consumption.

There is no doubt that these issues are complex and emotive, with a variety of views across science, industry and other stakeholders. The SNP does not oppose further research in this area and it acknowledges the work of the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and other Scottish scientists and researchers. The more empirical data available in this area, the better we can understand exactly the effects in crops and animals, and in genetically modified organisms. However, the SNP will always listen to the concerns of the public and producers and take them into consideration in agricultural matters or in scientific development. Indeed, DEFRA’s own consultation last year found that 88% of individuals and 64% of businesses supported continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs. The strength and range of opposition to the use of gene editing should give us pause to reflect.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
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The hon. Lady is making a lot of points about how this is, of course, a devolved area, but does she therefore disagree with the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, when he says that precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, led by scientific expertise available in Scotland, have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, nutrition, agriculture, biodiversity and climate change?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I thought I had made myself fairly clear. We are waiting for the EU review of this technology to take place, then we will weigh it up carefully and decide whether to continue down that route ourselves. The trouble with farmers and the NFUS at the moment is that they are so desperate to find something in place of the trade they have lost as a result of Brexit that they have seized on this. I think that the precautionary principle should always apply with new technologies of this sort.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I will keep going for a bit.

Let me give the view of some of the organisations that have listed their concerns. The view of the umbrella group of individuals and organisations, GM Freeze, is that the proposed new approach would take away scrutiny and transparency, and as these are patented technologies, it is concerned that big business will be handed greater leverage and control over what we eat. The Soil Association warns that in the absence of a proper governance framework, gene editing is likely to be driven by industry interests. The question has to be asked: without rigorous democratic forms of governance in this area, how can we stop monopolies forming and companies acting in the service of profit rather the public interest? I hope very much that we will hear that question answered as the Bill progresses and, as the Minister is nodding, perhaps even this afternoon.

Deregulating GE products also loosens the strict controls that allow modified plants and animals to be traced with ease, making the impact on the general animal and plant population harder to track and assess. There are also fears that deregulated gene editing risks displacing high-welfare agro-ecological farming systems such as organic farming. If there is no tracing or labelling, the future of organic and other non-GM farming is threatened. Citizens deserve to know how their food has been produced; that goes to the very heart of food sovereignty.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she aware that the last generation of new varieties were often produced using induced mutation, gamma radiation or chemicals such as colchicine, which was equivalent to smashing up DNA with a sledgehammer rather than this keyhole surgery? Varieties such as Golden Promise, which can be grown organically in Scotland and go into the majority of Scotch whisky, have been produced in that way and she has not raised any concerns about them.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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As I say, we are prepared to consider the technology as things progress but we are waiting on the EU, because the EU has the strictest standards in the world—[Interruption.] The EU has some of the strictest standards in the world, and if it is content after it has examined this process and had its consultation, that is certainly something we are prepared to consider.

Ministers insist that no changes should be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare. However, as has been mentioned, a coalition of 21 of the UK’s leading animal protection organisations has called those safeguards

“poorly defined and largely inadequate”.

Among multiple other concerns, the group cites increased risk of regarding animals as things that can just be modified for human convenience. That, of course, contradicts the central premise of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.

DEFRA cites the potential for gene editing to address concerns over food security. I held a debate recently on the subject and talked about the need to prioritise sustainable domestic food production and build long-term resilience into our farming system. There is a danger, as the Soil Association points out, that gene editing is used as a sticking plaster for industrial farming systems, targeting symptoms and not root causes. The Secretary of State mentioned porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which, as I understand it, is caused largely by poor living conditions. Why not try to address that rather than using the new technology as, as the Soil Association points out, a sticking plaster? The UK Government appear to be rushing to adopt untested technologies to distract from the real issues in our food system, such as poor soils, lack of crop diversity, intensive industrial farming and falling domestic production.

I will come to a close shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think you are looking at me sternly. It might be easier to take the Government at their word if they were not abandoning other plans that would have a positive impact on food security and inequality. The food strategy for England, which was published on Monday, has been remarkably watered down by rejecting many of the recommendations in the food system review and dropping the commitment to introduce a food Bill.

In Scotland, the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, which is making progress, will produce plans that will be scrutinised according to various metrics, including social and economic wellbeing, health and the environment. A draft plan has been published on ending the need for food banks. The Scottish Government’s new vision for agriculture outlines how we aim to support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

If the UK Government are serious in their intention that the Bill will affect the market in England only, they must amend it to ensure that products covered by it are not included in the mutual recognition and non-discrimination provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and that the devolved Parliaments can reject those products outright if they are not content. The Scottish Government think that the principle of devolution should be respected by the UK Government. The Scottish Parliament should be asked for its consent before actions are taken hastily that could undermine our trade with Europe and compromise the safety of our food.

This is our food system. We must surely ensure that every possible safeguard is in place before we adopt this Bill.